Get on the laugh track with SITCOM

From Voices: The University of Chicago's Arts & Entertainment Journal, Friday, October 14, 1994.

Contrary to the author's summer-long beliefs, University Theater's newest, SITCOM, is not the conceptual offspring of last year's great variety piece Placebo. It does, however, contain some of the same faces and wits and a similar tongue-in-the-cheek-of-modern-youth slant. As University Theater's first production of the season, as well as a pioneer in a genre of extended improv constructed on the ancestral memories of the TV age, SITCOM has a lot of expectations to live up to.

It's difficult to critique a fluid performance so instead I will praise the perverse sophistication of its spirit. The ensemble of SITCOM -- Abby Sher, John McCorry, Dan Goldstein, John Bourdeaux, André Pluess, Nick Green, Josh Sinton, Jim Ortlieb, Ben Sussman and Emily Pollock -- have rehearsed and researched the formula of the all-American situation comedy throughout the long hot summer.

Were they not such a staunch and well-educated collection of alternative youth, one would fear for their minds. As it is, as with the changing of the leaves and the onset of Homecoming, they have mastered the ability to transform a few stock characters and skewed commercial gimmicks provided by the studio audience into a working replica of that syndicated plastic wryness that was as a third parent to us all. All in the name of our need for blithe, vaguely self-hating yet elitist entertainment from our peers. Or is it?

The cast and set of SITCOM are minimal and in primary colors: T-shirts and jeans and props of solid colored blocks that grow into sets as the plot lines emerge. The cultural sympathies, however, are epic. Take the glittering preview performance I and some other privileged friends of the cast witnessed on Wednesday night.

In lieu of payment, members of the audience were required to submit "a word" written on transparency paper at the door. In accordance with the strangely subtle treatment of the sitcom by the performance, these words create a base of commercial breaks for the show, provided with shrieking, bizarre, yet true-to-life enthusiasm by Josh Sinton and John McCorry, two member of the cast scheduled to do the ads portion of SITCOM on this particular night.

John Bourdeaux, acting as the night's announcer, introduced the show and its to logic to us, one with which we could not help but be familiar. The audience suggests a locale for the action of the show (Lumber factory!), some simple relationships for the characters (Pursuer and pursued! Siamese twins!). The cast then took a couple of minutes, in our sight, as never leaving the stage is for some reason an integral part of the productions ethic, before coming up to introduce their characters in true Gilligan's Island style. Already the audience had paused by rendering farcical strains of the environmental quandary and youth's obsession with physical deformity.

Meanwhile, our imaginations were in that strange mode of lulled semi-stimulation sitcom jingles inspire. With unselfconscious abandon, people hummed or sang along to the introduction and love themes of retro TV shows: Green Acres, Gilligan's Island, or Brady Bunch . The actors would build, and it was a very systematic, if seamless act of construction, a sitcom out of the audience suggestions and then return to ad-lib next week's installment after several words from hypothetical twilight-zone sponsors.

The most remarkable aspect of SITCOM was that after the first few minutes of Mark's Lumberyard, which were occasionally awkward, sometimes gauchely absurd, I forgot that what I was watching was improvisation. Instant by instant, the cast built upon the stored memories of a lifetime and their own god-given talent to bring to life (in Technicolor) a wide variety of characters: Mark, the earnest lumber factory owner, Charlotte, his fawning daughter, the recently separated Siamese lumber twins Ralph and Rufus, the disgruntled yet confessor-like government inspector Edgar, and Babe, the oddly Zen and stupid lumberjack who "destroys" the forest (which provides the only cogent insight into human affairs in the show).

I don't want to share this, my version of SITCOM, because it is in any case over and One Of A Kind. The beauty, beyond the brilliance of the ads (creating a commercial for home-ground Wisconsin Jell-O molds from one of the audience transparencies) is the ability of the actors to convincingly acquire such Hollywood local color in their insta-dialogues, like "Sets me to wondering" and "People are a lot like trees," and the consummate virtuosity of André Pluess and Ben Sussman (the indispensable theme song authors and musicians) between the two episodes of the show. Beyond all these treats is the sheer postmodern generosity of SITCOM being a new TV show, tailored just for you, every time you see it. We all had dreams like this as children.

When even we Kulchur mavens find brilliance in a parody of albeit socially pervasive prime time schtick, (to quote another theatrical endeavor currently playing in Hyde Park), "the real stage had better look to its laurels." The world may be going to hell, but at least here at U of C there are artists who are willing to articulate endearing patterns in the paths it takes to get there; who are willing to lay a trail of deceptively intellectual bread crumbs so that some day we may find a way back.

Copyright Jacqui Bootes, Voices Lapin Noir

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