At The Second City e.t.c.
By Dan Zeff
Chicago–Once upon a time, many people considered Second City e.t.c. a kind of minor league to the Mainstage company. The e.t.c. performed in a smaller, less well-equipped theater, though in the same building as the Mainstage operation. The performers were less experienced, their material edgier, and the tickets a little cheaper.
That was then, this is now. The e.t.c. company generally looks younger and has less stage experience than the actors on the Mainstage. The theater still may be smaller but it is as physically well appointed as its elder sibling, with enough doors at the rear of the stage to revive a French farce. But e.t.c., now performing its 42nd revue, has upgraded itself into a partner rather than a perceived stepchild of the Mainstage cabaret.
So if patrons hadn’t seen an e.t.c. show for a couple dozen productions, they will be agreeably surprised at how far the newer troupe has come. Which is by way of stating that the newly opened revue “Gaslight District” can stand, idea for idea and performance for performance, with the currently “Dream Freaks Fall from Space” on the Mainstage.
The cast consists of the usual six performers, this time three males and three females. They are all skilled in comedy, singing, and occasionally dancing. And they are very compatible together acting in assorted combinations. There are no African Americans in this production (but one Latino), yet the humor passes the diversity test with no problem.
“Gaslight District” (if the title was explained on stage, I missed it) is exceptionally fast-paced, with lots of quick hitter sketches. The subject matter touches most of the usual thematic targets, starting, inevitably with our current president. Satirical digs at Donald Trump are injected throughout the evening, implemented to considerable comic effect by the facial and vocal replications of Andrew Knox. There is much ridicule but nothing that could be called mean spirited.
The show is an equal opportunity mocker. One bit sends up the news slants that guide the reportorial policies of Fox, NPR, and MSNBC. The NRA gets a working over in a clever sketch with the entire ensemble wielding a handgun.
The two soft spots in the sketch lineup take place in a hospice and in a hair solon for men staffed by women. Both are one-joke skits that go on too long, in contrast to the up-tempo and concise bits that happily dominate the revue.
At my performance, the improvisations stumbled a bit through no fault of the performers. One promising bit had several cast members riding in an Uber taxi, with someone from the audience drafted to join them to provide comic riffs. Unfortunately, the woman drafted to enter the Uber cab froze up completely and the cast did a heroic job saving the sketch from disaster with their own improv skills.
There isn’t a coherent theme to the show but from time to time the characters seemed to enter and depart from a time warp. I didn’t recognize a single reference to local politics, though there was one offbeat sketch involving a very funny series of pitching changes in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.
The most stunning moment in “Gaslight District” comes in a two hander by Jasbir Singh Vazquez as a Latino man facing Sayjal Joshi as a burbling federal functionary starting a career of issuing deportations to ethnics who were still loyal Americans. The bit is broadly comical enough until we realize that the man wants to leave the United States for his original home to join his 14 year old brother who had been deported four months previously. For maybe the first time in my Second City viewing experience, the theater went stone silent. The show shifted back into comic gear but only after the entire audience sat in stunned silence for several seconds.
The ensemble is filled out by Alan Linic, Katie Kershaw, and Emily Fightmaster, each with his or her star moment, though this was basically an ensemble production. All six bring distinctive physical and performing presences to the show, and it would be a disservice to single out any performer for extra praise. But Vazquez shows glimpses of acting skills that could take him beyond cabaret satire to the legitimate stage.
Full props go to Anneliese Toft for her spot-on directing that carves out the necessary pace for each bit, no matter how brief (the two long sketches mentioned above could be trimmed) and orchestrates the cast into a smoothly functioning comic machine. And special praise goes to Jacob Shuda who is credited with musical direction, original music, and sound design. Shuda presides from a giant electronic instrument that elevates the production hugely with its varied music and creative sound effects.
Bob Knuth is the set designer and also billed as “creative director.” Whatever that is, Knuth does it very well. Abby Beggs is the lighting designer, which includes coating Emily Fightmaster in a greenish glow as she soloed as a Gender Alien from the Planet Dildo. Carisa Barreca is the choreographer and Jessica Sheehan is the wardrobe stylist, tending toward thrift shop chic.
I left the theater full of admiration for the cast and for the selection of material. The performers resisted the temptation to simply take cheap shots at obvious targets. Opinions are stated with comic deftness but no axes are ground. The sketches don’t include an abundance of home runs but they are consistent in their freshness. And that extended moment of shocked recognition when Vazquez’s immigrant reveals he is returning to his brother will stay with me for a long while.
The revue gets a rating of
“Gaslight District” is playing an open run at the Second City e.t.c. cabaret theater, 230 West North Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets $21 to $48. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.secondcity.com.
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