The Late 90s
Up-and-coming improv teams are given stage time before the headliner most nights at iO and, on Thursdays at least, the comparison in skill is something worth seeing firsthand.
The openers I caught last week (the teams Denver and Dog) offered solid, sometimes inspired moments. (Andy Junk, in particular, of Dogs, jumped out as someone to watch.)
But when The Late 90s took the stage, the contrast was plain as day. This is what a well-oiled improv team looks like.
As an ensemble, the group is extremely good at pushing ideas forward and shifting into new characters without the requisite moment of uncertainty you often see when improvisers embark on a new scene. Usually there is a perceptible pause or hiccup as everyone gets their bearings. Not here. The transitions are seamless, something a casual observer might not notice but for the earlier teams.
The team has a tendency to go dark (not just ribald but emotionally bleak), which is always a plus in improv. The laughs tend to be deeper and more uncomfortable that way. ("Every morning I would wake up and see dad at the sink, filling up the liquor bottle so it didn't look so empty.")
There was an extraordinary run of scenes branching off and circling back around, all stemming from the question, "Have you ever been in love?" The answers, acted out in flashback, were twisted and almost heartbreaking despite the ludicrousness of each mini-story. There was just something ingenious about the way the scenes all fit together; the team really was of one mind.
It's a formidable group, including the deceptively unassuming Clayton Margeson and the rat-a-tat energy of Scott Nelson ("You rat, you mouse, you sick, sick pig!"). Bill Cochran is the most measured thinker (especially good playing Southern men who work with their hands), and Katie Klein, she of the red hair and arrowlike gaze, is extremely quick on her feet and, frankly, a wonder to watch.
Open run at iO Theater, 3541 N Clark St.; tickets are $12 at 773-880-0199 or ioimprov.com
"The Doll's House Project: Ibsen Is Dead"
I've always thought Betty Draper's story on "Mad Men" felt like a riff on Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House," both in the gender norms that define the marriage and the secrets and lies that finally destroy it.
Nora's trajectory, from macaroon-sneaking airhead to fully-actualized adult who chucks her lousy marriage with a slam of the door behind her, has lent itself to all sorts of reinterpretations, but none has felt quite so pointed and wonderfully ticked off as this world premiere from playwright Calamity West.
It takes place in a swank New York apartment. The year is 1989. The woman of the hour (cut from the same cloth as Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine") will not be learning any life lessons, alas. Shallow people cannot fundamentally change. Not even when an old friend comes calling, played by the sensational Stella Martin as a no-baloney bohemian (and, I suspect, the stand-in for the playwright herself) veering between desperation and disgust as she unfurls her plan for blackmail.
Nora's smitten neighbor (Adam Soule) and husband (Matthew David Gellin as an emotional sadist in suspenders and a power tie) complicate matters once they arrive on the scene.
The caustic dynamic is scarily entertaining, as if the jousting parties were pulled from a Bruce Norris script. Martin, with her dark lipstick and perpetual side-eye, gives a naturalistic performance in director James Yost's production, in contrast to the kabuki-like performances of the others. I'm not sure the contrast works; there's mannered, and then there's stilted.
The play is no screed, but West doesn't hide her disdain for Nora, either, played by Jenifer Henry Starewich, whose vacant expression suggests little more than a cypher at first. But gradually you realize that blank look might just be an exercise in massive self-control, of a woman repressing everything. Because to unleash it all would ruin a perfectly superficial existence.
Through June 8 at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave.; tickets are $20 at 773-935-6875 or athenaeumtheatre.org
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