Friday, October 9, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: American Stage Sessions (ASS)

As you have doubtless gathered from the title, ASS is an intensely silly show. Written and performed by The Plagiarists, a group I've always meant to check out, the evening purports to be a public-access telethon put on by the Muskogee Magic Theatre to raise enough money to save their theatre. Hosted by Professor Nigel Bubblecock-Fatkins (Gregory Peters), the group's alcoholic, pretentious Artistic Director, and Mitch Newman (Ryan Palmer), a smarmy TV star who got his start at the theatre, the telethon features the company performing scenes from three neglected (and fictitious) great playwright. First comes Alabama O'Dell, a hybrid of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, followed by Herzlichen Gluckwunsch Zum Geburtstag, an amalgam of arty Europeans who seems closest to Strindberg, and Elmer Templeton Shirley, apparently a Midwestern Clifford Odets.

Now you might say that, as satirical targets go, public-access telethons, community theatres, alcoholic theatre professors, shallow TV stars, and great, serious playwrights are exceptionally easy. And you'd be completely right. But have I mentioned the beer? Yes, the Viaduct Theatre has a lobby bar, and having a drink of four seems the best way to enjoy the show.

I saw it sober, however, and it still has a lot to recommend it. By the standards of silly, spoofy shows, it does quite well. Moments had me laughing so hard I could barely catch my breath, and the show usually stay on the right side of the line between ridiculous humor and just screwing around.

The only problem is that the company doesn't know when enough is enough. The show would be hilarious at maybe 75-80 minutes, intermissionless. Unfortunately there are two intermissions and it's two hours long. I'd guess the intermissions are there so that everyone has time to buy more drinks, but they sap the show's momentum in pretty damaging ways. The cast and the director, Steve Wilson, are very sharp throughout, but haven't quite distinguished between the best material and the so-so stuff.

This isn't to say I didn't have a great time for most of it. The theatre spoofs are often dead-on (if possibly only funny to insiders--my friend who's not a theatre person was less amused by them than I was) and the entire cast creates sharp characters/caricatures, with excellent timing and physical comedy skills. It's a delightful way to spend a Monday or Tuesday night, especially with a few drinks in you. But if the show cut the intermissions and about 20 minutes of the lesser material, it would be fantastic. Ah well, I'll still try to make it to The Plagiarist's next show--it should be interesting at the least!

ASS runs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 PM through  November 3rd at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Avenue in Chicago. Tickets are $15/$10 for Students and Seniors, and can be purchased by visiting or calling (773) 296-6024. The Plagiarists are on the web at


Benedict Nelson said...

Zev, I have this weird monkey on my back about Intermissions since the Cliche Watch, but I have to say, I LOVED the two intermissions in this show. For me, it made the show seem more like an evening and less like a single little show. This was one of the things that prevented it from being a sketch show also, and made it more of a vaudeville. An evening. I thought the pacing served it well, and felt natural with the tripartite structure of the show.

Zev Valancy said...

Benno--As I remember, I was actually one of the fiercest defenders of intermissions when this debate was going on your blog. There are a few reasons why they didn't work for me here. (And for everyone else reading, particularly any Plagiarists, please keep in mind that I overall liked the show a lot.)

The first is the simple one of pacing that I mentioned--two hours seems like a large investment of time for this particular show, which risks overstaying the welcome. An intermissionless 75-80 is more likely to leave the audience wanting more.

The second is that, for me, an intermission implies a certain amount of dramatic weight--that what's going on is so exciting that you will want to come back and see what happens next. This can certainly be true even in a light comedy. The story in ASS seemed more a pretext for the jokes than an end in itself. Now this is a wonderful thing when the jokes are good--as they are in this show. It just doesn't have the dramatic substance to support two intermissions. (There are also revues, but those tend to end the act with some kind of dazzle, which works just about as well.)

Third--I hadn't thought of it as a vaudeville, but to me that implies three substantially different acts, when the three sections of ASS were basically doing the same thing. There are no juggling or dog acts to be found.

But that's just me.

Jack said...

Zev--Thanks for coming to the show! I'm a member of the Plagiarists, and wrote some of ASS.

I'm very interested in this discussion about run-times and intermissions. The Plagiarists are somewhat known for (too-)long work--our Promiscuous Stories was a collection of 7 short story adaptations that clocked in at a robust 2 and a half hours (with one intermission). This is something that the theater-artist and producer sides of my brain are constantly arguing about.

When we conceived ASS, we made it a priority to perform in a venue with a bar, so that ASS could be more of a "night out with friends" than a "play that you go see." The three "episodes" and two intermissions were built to facilitate that experience.

However, I think in retrospect our publicity and marketing effort did not emphasize that aspect to any real degree.

While the attendees of our monthly Salon series are perfectly content to watch 20 minutes of performance stretched over two hours with frequent breaks because we made the priority of conversation apparent in our descriptions of the events, those who come to see ASS are probably arriving with different expectations.

That said, I would love to hear more about the specific problems that the show's length caused. I'm leery of arbitrary "comedy can't be over 90 minutes and you shouldn't have a 2nd intermission unless you hit at least 3 hours" requirements--which your review avoids by its references to more specific concerns. But I would love to hear more about those: Was the later material not as strong as the first act? Were you too exhausted to keep laughing? Did you find yourself checking your watch? What, exactly, was the problem with the length?

I hope this doesn't come off as any sort of petty critic-baiting. I would be crazy to argue with such a positive review! Rather, the rhythm of the evening is an aspect of production that keenly interests The Plagiarists, and I've been asking many who saw the show for such responses.

It's wonderful to hear that "Moments had me laughing so hard I could barely catch my breath." I find that experience exceedingly rare in the theater, and I am honored that our show gave it to you.

Zev Valancy said...

Jack--First off, thanks for the response. It's the opposite of petty critic baiting, and I really appreciate it. My job is both to advise the reader on how they should or shouldn't spend their time and money and give clear, informed feedback to the artists. Some artists don't have any interest in taking feedback from critics, so it's really gratifying when one not only listens, but asks for expansion.

While the evening was clearly a fun way to go out on an off-night, it definitely read as "play" to me. While the Viaduct has a bar, it's still a theatre. The experience also felt like a traditional play--a fictional world was set up, the fourth wall was basically respected, people stayed in character, they left the stage at the intermissions and bowed at the end, etc. etc. While it might have felt more like a night out if I'd actually gotten a few drinks, it was basically a play, performed in a theatre. Therefore these are intermissions, not breaks between sets. So that creates some expectations that I'm not sure the current structure can live up to.

As I said in the comment above, an intermission implies a certain amount of dramatic tension. At least to me, the story seemed like basically a pretext for the jokes. I wasn't ever invested in the story, so every time there was an intermission, it was challenging to get back into the show. With minimal dramatic tension, I wondered if the intermission had been earned. It wasn't a length thing--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at Writers' has three acts and is only about 2:15, and I thought that the two intermissions worked perfectly. It just didn't feel like there was enough drama to earn two intermissions.

Another issue was that, while the show had some parts that were insanely funny, other parts just weren't. It wasn't that the best material we necessarily in Act 1 (though I do think Act 2 was weaker), but that each act had a good 5-8 minutes of material that wasn't up to the level of the show as a whole. One of the sad rules of art is that it doesn't take much to be a drag on the whole product, and the subpar material did slow down the show as a whole. Combine that with the intermissions and it produced the impression of a show that, despite the high level of most of the material, was staggering a bit under its own weight. This leads to my belief that the ideal form for the show is a swift 75-80 minutes that leaves the audience wanting more. That may not be how it ends up, and I may be alone in that view, but it's what I've got.

Does all that make sense? I'd love to continue the conversation--and some time soon I'll come to a salon!

Jack said...

Thanks Zev--

I think there's a lot to what you're saying. We conceived the show as a certain type of evening, but that thinking didn't end up actually bleeding into the way we rehearsed and formed the finished product, I think. At the end of the day, maybe we should just admit that ASS is pretty close to being "a play." And that's fine--playing with the structure of an evening to learn how best to break those conventional rules in the future never killed anyone.

One thing that I think has been interesting has been the wildly varied response to the question, "Which was your favorite scene?" While many have agreed with you that act 2 is not as strong as 1 or 3, others think the Geburtstag scenes are by far the funniest.

Cutting for length was absolutely a feature of our last couple weeks of rehearsal (if I'd had my way, the show would be another 30 minutes longer!), but I think we held on to a lot of what you perceived as the weaker material because, amongst ourselves, we couldn't agree on which the weaker material was. And the audience response has, to an extent, borne that out--every scene is someone's favorite.

So what's the solution? I don't know that, for ASS, there is one. With this show, we had to reconcile our ideas about an off-night event, our desire to do a show that played to our performers' strengths, and our sprawling writing process. Ultimately, I think we ended up with a show that we really like doing. That's not the most noble reason to produce a play. But it was what we as a company needed at this point in time, and so far the audience seems to be following us almost all the way down the rabbit hole.

I believe pretty firmly that a sleek, 80-minute selection would not have been true to the potential of the text and of our performers, even if it would have had a higher laugh-to-minute ratio and cleaner pacing. But then, I would.

Thanks again for being willing to continue this conversation!

Gabriella Wilson said...
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