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Comedy Wed Feb 11 2015

HIJINKSfest at iO Theater: On Comedy & the Pursuit of the Extreme

To what end does one seek to be edgy and experimental in comedy today, in this age of abandon? It is a question recently posed, albeit indirectly, by sketch comedy group Hijinks when they attempted to pull off the herculean effort that was HIJINKSfest: 12 hours of original sketch comedy shows, performed by a cast of five, in ceaseless succession with minimal breaks in between.

It might come as a surprise to hear that each show making up the behemoth was a worthy piece of comedy — some transcendent, others raw, with moments interspersed that were at times playful, disgusting, inspiring, shocking, and even touching.

While they may seem unlikely analogues, comedy has many similarities to painting as an artform. Both serve to mirror and heighten reality with the purpose of eliciting a reaction, whether surprise, delight or disgust. In the 20th century, as artists struggled to understand life after the chasm carved out by two World Wars, they began to deconstruct the formalism of the academies, exploring and transgressing into the realms of surrealism. The same is true for comedy, with experimental forms pushing boundaries of taste and tradition.

These moves rewrote the cultural understanding of the two art forms and invalidated the creation of traditional art and comedy. Older examples can — and should — be venerated, but creating something in their image these days is seen as staid, safe, and predictable. By way of comparison, consider the painters Keith Haring and Thomas Kinkade. The pair were contemporaries, but while Haring's vibrant street art occupies nearly 40 permanent collections in museums worldwide, Kinkade's traditional works mostly hang in suburban living rooms. In the 21st century, good comedy shouldn't aspire to be Thomas Kinkade.

haringvkinkade.png

The problem with this relentless pursuit of modernity is the need for constant reinvention. Sketch comedy has become less interested in the pursuit of the laugh; the creative process and approach are equally important.

Hijinks — that is, group members Alex Hanpeter, Mike Klasek, Clayton Margeson, Jude Tedmori, and Kyle Reinhard — have taken these limitations and turned them into their muse over the past year, creating monthly shows based off simple one- or two-line prompts, performing them once and moving on. The group, having completed their one-year run at the Public House Theater in Wrigleyville, were given the opportunity to make the jump to iO Theater and continue their experimentation. It was then that the idea for HIJINKSfest was born, to perform all of their extant works in one day, from noon until midnight. Perhaps there is nothing more Hijinks-like than to announce your arrival at one of Chicago's most important comedy stages by tearing it down in the process.

The show came together as a sort of test, more of the strengths of performers than of the audience. Could these five actors withstand 12 solid hours of wild, often dangerous, comedy? Would the length of the show become a factor in their performances, eventually getting under their skin and derailing the show? It is likely that with the addition of this gruelling gauntlet that Hijinks could, in good faith, revisit their old material, for the endurance element transformed the proceedings into the 13th show of the day. Each constituent hour was its own self-contained piece, but also part of a larger, Voltron-like super show.

I saw things that I'd genuinely never seen before, like an honest-to-goodness, real life couple engaging in a contest of pugilism, or someone drinking their own urine. Also there were the things I had seen before, but were done here so recklessly and cheaply as to take on new, surprising hilarity and power. We were taken on a trolley ride through the streets of the city, picking up planted actors sprinkled throughout on corners and in parks as though they were in the area by chance. One such actor, Brian McGovern, was picked up multiple times before being stripped nearly bare as he tried to escape the trolley. McGovern took off, running wildly to safety through Lincoln Park in his altogether leaving several passersby gobsmacked, only to turn up back at the theater for that hour's conclusion.

The show's apogee largely came between the hours of 6 and 10pm. This portion of the marathon was where all of the various, swirling energies of the Hijinks cast coalesced, creating comedy that was edgy, moving, and above all, hilarious.

In the 6 o'clock slot came the boxing match. Hanpeter and Tedmori, dating in real life, agreed to go toe-to-toe with one another for six rounds; the audience had no say in the matter, making for an airless room at times, witnessing the overmatched Hanpeter take blow after blow from her boyfriend. When the tide turned and Hanpeter ended up getting the better of Tedmori and eventually won, she didn't hesitate to throw it back in the face of the cheering crowd, likening it to supporting domestic violence.

Hijinks boxing

Seven o'clock saw the Hijinks gang taking the audience on the aforementioned trolley tour of Chicago comedy, attempting to muscle their way onto other comedy theater stages while giving instruction in what makes for successful comedy, mostly while failing. There were so many disparate elements that some of the funnier things never amounted to anything more than a momentary mention.

For the 8 o'clock hour, all five members of Hijinks entered the stage under the impression that they were about to do their own one-person show. Each performer was allowed a truncated slot, working across a range of styles from multimedia presentations to a surreal riff on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." The real highlight of this hour came when Klasek presented his solo show about depression and suicide, without an ounce of humor. It was a phenomenally written and performed work that haunted the entire audience. This was followed by Reinhard's solo show, where he played an angelic version of rocker Slash, and the counterpoint between this juvenile material and Klasek's honest emotions made the entire thing sing with wild comedy.

The moment that encapsulated the whole mad endeavor came when, in the 9 o'clock slot, Hijinks attempted to perform Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Margeson couldn't keep to the material, but was reminded that Miller himself has been invited to the show, and if they impress him they'll be able to go to his mansion to party and swim in his infinity pool afterward. When word came that Miller won't be able to make it, the show flipped on a dime, now featuring Robocop, Mrs. Robocop, and a murderer who leaves semen-filled socks on his victims. Not long after, the cast received a telegram saying that Miller would be in attendance, at which point the actors scurried to get back into their traditional costumes.

The show continued, vacillating between those two states of extremely faithful adaptation and hilariously inappropriate for the remainder of the evening. When a late-arriving audience member made a beeline for the seat reserved for Miller, the show stopped as anticipation hung in the air. Upon his exclaiming that he wasn't Miller, pandemonium erupted and the cast dragged him up on stage and attempted to hang him from the rafters. At this point it became clear that, through the infighting and backbiting, the cast had managed to keep the tenor of the original play while deviating so flagrantly from the actual text.

Another interesting aspect was unintended repetition. In one of the early shows, a number of lines continually reappeared in almost all of the others, though mostly by mistake, as the cast would later explain. When the 12 shows are viewed within this proximity, these lines take on the feeling of call-backs and motifs, turning what may have initially been lazy writing into something of a fugue.

In addition there was a drinking game that the audience could — and did — follow along. There was a podcast recorded with the cast around three-quarters of the way through the show. Klasek dyed his hair blonde somewhere around hour three but managed to save the reveal until hour five to audible gasps, as though somehow it had happened by magic. Innumerable dildos were present, as were their real counterparts. Shows ran the gamut from science fiction and fantasy, to a live game show that forced contestants to speed-eat pizza. As each hour-long show came to an end there was always a break for five or 10 minutes that seemed necessary for the audience but equally important for the stage, as with each new hour came new ways to assault the stage, whether with countless beers, pints of blood, water, glitter, Holi colors, cocaine, or untold vats of semen. Well, not real cocaine. Or blood. Or thankfully, semen.

mike and jude

For their efforts, a glass should be raised to the Hijinks crew. Hanpeter, Klasek, Margeson, Tedmori, and Reinhard took a mad idea and made it work. Beyond that they ended up making a piece of crazy, stupid, admirable art. They pushed for the boundaries and, instead of finding something concrete and immovable, they were able to expand the idea of what sketch comedy is capable. It's too bad that to keep moving forward, they will likely never mount the show again, but as a signpost announcing their arrival at iO there is scarcely a clearer way to signal that this is a not a group to be missed.

Hijinks shows can be seen the first Saturday of the month at 10:30 PM at iO Theater, 1501 N. Kingsbury. Tickets are $5.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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