"Welcome to PleasureTown"
I'm not going to lie: Pegging your show as "A Prairie Home Companion" meets "Caligula" is a near guarantee that you'll get me in the door. And what do you know? "Welcome to PleasureTown" delivers with its collection of cracked-yet-homespun monologues about the denizens of this (entirely fictitious) early-20th-century Oklahoma burg, wiped from the map sometime around the Dust Bowl.
Presented in faux lecture-hall style, an amusingly starchy historian and his archaeologist sidekick (producers Erin Kahoa and Keith Ecker) try to piece together what life must have been like in this unknowable place, only to have their assumptions blown to pieces each time a ghost of PleasureTown — the bartender, the madam, the mayor and so on — arrives onstage to tell the true nature of his or her story. Very little pleasure, it seems, existed in this humble, arid place, where the stories are far richer and stranger than anything one might associate with the upbeat irony of the town's name.
It's hard to know if this theme is by grand design or merely a darkly comedic coincidence. There are six writers working individually here (all are members of the local live-lit scene) and each, in costume, performs a monologue devised for his or her character.
Unearthed artifacts (a rocks glass, a dog collar, a corset) become the segue from one story to another; the archaeologist has no clue what these objects actually signify. It's one of the show's drollest repeating motifs and a pithy observation about our struggle to understand the past. (Megan Deiger and Tim Hazen provide the live acoustic music that is both folksy and ridiculous.)
It was inevitable, I suppose, particularly in Chicago, that the theater scene and live-lit scene would converge, if only for a moment, to form something that draws a bit from each. The production is about 90 percent there. The services of a director would help to move things along better (the awkward transitions are an easy fix) and push for a stronger overall arc. As it stands, the individual stories don't quite hang together to form a meaningful picture. Not once do these characters acknowledge, even in passing, the existence of the others.
No quibble, though, with the writing or the performances, which are wickedly funny, often disturbing and hugely effective. As the bartender who moonlights as a hired killer, Ian Belknap spends much of his time on stage stroking his beard, contemplating the deep quiet of his unsettled conscience. Jen Bosworth's brothel owner has pugilistic intentions for her girls and their clientele ("You will use your wit and humor to make them believe you have neither," she instructs). Don Hall gives the town's grizzled old-timer a sardonic edge. Only Scott Whitehair's story of the hedonistic mayor is performed by someone else (actor Kevin Gladish), and though it feels terribly out of sync, its verbose, upstanding, R-rated silliness is full of the kind of details missing in the other stories that actually flesh out this town into a place with a geography and a populace.
The show runs just one more night, but if you miss it there are plans afoot for a longer run in 2014.
Through Oct. 11 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.; $15 at stage773.com.
Good improv — the kind that has an almost seamless quality as it rolls from one scene to the next— is a long-haul proposition. It can take years for performers to really settle into a groove together. And then before you know it, one person after another scatters to the wilds of Los Angeles or elsewhere to pursue more lucrative work in TV and film.
That sweet spot in between — when an improv team is just seasoned enough to leverage its internal chemistry, but not restless enough to skip town just yet — is where Switch Committee currently resides. The five-man group, in their shirts and ties, has the right kind of playful but down-to-business approach.
They are the type to literally climb the rafters, for bits that included a riff on men's gymnastics, a performer-as-human pinata and a treehouse mom got in the divorce: "Now it's her bachelorette pad."
Alan Linic (who, full disclosure, is an employee of Tribune Digital’s advertising staff) is especially strong when it comes to playing a specific sort of dumb (intent but dense) and there's huge potential down the line for this sort of thing. The standout is Ryan Nallen, who brings to mind a Michael J. Fox-like "what, me?" mock innocence. He was the one hanging from beams, which became obviously painful after a time. As one of his fellow cast members attempted to help him out, the others decided, nope, we'll keep him suspended up there with every narrative contrivance we can think of. That's pretty cruel, but also funny. And Nallen, good sport that he was, let you know it was OK to laugh.
Thursdays through Nov. 21 at iO Theater, 3541 N. Clark St.; $12 at ioimprov.com/chicagoCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun