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Comedy Sat Mar 09 2013
My friend recently told me that I'm "known for talking about celebrities." This caught me off-guard because I imagine myself as a much more interesting person who, I don't know, likes art or something. Admittedly, I do spend a great deal of time talking about Rihanna conspiracy theories (there is no way she smokes as much pot as she Instagrams) and I'm a Lindsay Lohan apologist (she has real problems!) but the thing is: I don't actually care about celebrities.
Celebrities are metaphors. We extrapolate on our own lives based off their constructed narratives. The beautiful people in movies and on TV let us explore our most base inclinations toward voyeurism. They are figures for clichés. We are allowed to openly talk about them because their lives are on display, and we rationalize our obsession by saying that they "knew what they were signing up for" or they like the attention.
It could be argued that in the US, one of the most important (if not extremely damaging) forms of storytelling is played out in the live-action celebrity sagas we proliferate and dissect. This celebrity worship is what The TomKat Project -- Wednesdays in March at 8PM, Playground Theater -- understands and capitalizes on, making it one of the most interesting and funny comedies I've seen in Chicago.
Written by Brandon Ogborn, The TomKat Project is a "timeline of media coverage spanning 14 years (1998-2012)" that uses sharp comedy writing to unpack the very public union and breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (TomKat). The show marries celebrity gossip, conspiracy, and comedy; it's a quick-paced inversion of celebrity journalism. With an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the couple's relationship, the show mixes verbatim dialogue -- which is often the funniest/most out-there exchanges and is signaled to the audience by a handheld sign -- with imagined conversations. The writing is really clever, and the form helps turn tabloid into (some semblance of the) truth. For their whole relationship, Tom and Katie's every move was documented (except for when she "wasn't out in public" for what, 16 days?), and Ogborn arranges these facts and mythologies to build up and deconstruct a narrative that was fed to us by publicists. This re-telling and organization is much harder than it sounds -- it's not about gossip, it's about context. All while being funny.
I had never really followed the TomKat relationship. For me, the most interesting thing Katie Holmes (of Dawson's Creek fame) ever did -- besides marrying Cruise -- was getting replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal in the Batman movies. And even with Cruise's rampage -- couch jumping, glib-calling -- he was never my type of "eccentric" because he seemed so sincere. I like my hot messes a little messier. The TomKat Project made me realize that I had not been paying enough attention, because their relationship was really scary and so Hollywood. I mean, there is just so much juicy information -- from gay rumors, sequestering, fake babies, and white vans -- that when arranged in this context made the show feel like an important piece of satire. It's comedy thee-ah-ter.
With just a lineup of chairs, the minimal staging aides the experimental style of storytelling. Directed by Elly Green, seven actors (including Ogborn as the narrator) portray 54 characters -- along with TomKat we see the likes of Oprah, Matt Lauer, Josh Hartnett, and Scientology leader David Miscavige. The solid cast consists of Julie Dahlinger, Kevin Knickerbocker, Walt Delaney, Brianna Baker, Micah Sterenberg, and Allison Yolo. If you've seen a lot of Chicago comedy, I'm sure you recognize some of these names and for good reason -- they are all super talented. With so many characters to play, these actors really get to shine (especially Baker as Oprah and Yolo as a Rebecca Gayheart). Dahlinger plays Holmes in this really energetic but contained way and Delaney gives Cruise a vacant intensity that feels spot-on -- he's like a talking teddy bear that has some control issues and well, Scientology. With a show like this, where narratives cross and there's a Rolodex of characters, timing is everything and these actors deliver on the funny with every facial tick.
Ostensibly, the show is about this Hollywood couple, but like any good saga, there is a twist. And the twist is what makes this show so much more than what you think it'll be. I've been writing on the internet long enough to know about SPOLIER ALERTS (this isn't one) so I won't say anything except it will make you question how you feel about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (even if in your blackest of hearts you currently feel nothing for them). As much as the show is about Tom and Katie, it's also about asking what we actually know about celebrities and why we should/shouldn't care.
The TomKat Project is on the cutting edge of Chicago comedy. The show offers a perspective that maybe celebrities are more than just metaphors. Maybe, they are people, too. Well, maybe. The truth is even when someone's life is on display for public consumption (i.e. celebrity) we'll never know the whole story.
The TomKat Project had a sold out run at the Upstairs Gallery in Andersonville before moving to the Playground. It's already looking to be pretty popular -- I heard rumblings that opening-night was sold out -- so try and get your tickets early. Tickets are $15 and you can buy them in advance here. The Playground Theater is located at 3209 N Halsted Street.
UPDATE: The TomKat Project has sold out for April but been extended through May -- get tickets here.
poster art: Jacob Sanders
photo courtesy of The Tomkat Project and taken at Upstairs Gallery