Stage 773’s Comedy Ensemble Unlikely Company Finds Their Footing in Farce

Photos courtesy of Unlikely Company

Unlikely Company’s talented ensemble finds both the humor and the melody in adult life, urging us to laugh at our own indulgent banality.

Unlikely Company
Director: Brian Posen
City: Chicago, IL
Venue: Stage 773
Date: 2016-07

In their summer residency in the Box Theatre at Stage 773, the sketch comedy ensemble Unlikely Company mines the gross, banal, and even absurd in Chicago life. Vibrant choreography and exuberant music set Unlikely Company aside from other comedy ensembles, but they find their surest footing in absurdist farce.

Unlikely Company’s latest show features sketches that range from musical parodies to topical news sketches to one-punch set pieces. Buoyed by enthusiastic physicality, the six-person ensemble embraces its self-proclaimed opening philosophy -- Fuck it! -- taking risks that include a sketch on gun control that misfires and a brief but hilarious wordless interlude of physical comedy from standout Liam Gallogly.

The sketches that work best feature Gallogly and fellow ensemble members Katie Nixon and Mollie Rehner. All three share a confident, controlled physical presence and impressive musical chops. Gallogly’s long-limbed gawkiness convincingly embodies characters ranging from an embarrassed teen explaining sex to his over-eager parents to an absurdist crab scuttling silently across the stage. Where Gallogly excels in physical comedy, Nixon and Rehner ground their solo sketches in the emotional beat of their characters, whether the unwarranted self-confidence of Rehner’s would-be balladeer or the misanthropic frustration of Nixon’s ditty on singledom.

Unlikely Company taps into its most powerful ensemble alchemy when they showcase their superb musical comedy. Mixing genre and farcical content, Unlikely Company performs everything from a country song celebrating the all-too-comfortable grossness of couples (exploiting the vulgarity of shared bodily functions) to a self-indulgent synth pop song about giving up (using Michael Bay’s film career as a hilarious parallel -- Armageddon was a good film!).

The ensemble’s trio of women combine forces to sing-shout a faux-feminist punk anthem about banishing bras and a rhythmic celebration of wearing leggings as pants (complete with requisite comedic commitment to camel toe). Like the other songs throughout their performance, these musical numbers are a delightful combination of mundane thoughts, banal experiences, and a sophisticated musical sensibility. Coupled with joyous choreography, Unlikely Company is at its best -- solo or ensemble -- when accompanied by music. It’s hard not to laugh even when the cast is just dancing along to incidental music.

And yet, the show stumbles when it trades in music for set pieces. Only a joke reimagining Chicago’s striking teachers at a bowling alley really succeeds, relying on the scene’s built in pun to carry the joke. Like their strongest songs, this sketch combines the banality of bowling with the now familiar refrain of Chicago’s striking public school teachers. It manages to point to the absurdity of Chicago’s politics without underlining it for the audience -- a sketch both Chicago-natives and visitors to Chicago can chuckle at.

After a rough and heartbreaking week (and summer) of tragic news around the world, however, the ensembles’ two most topical sketches proved dull and underwhelming. In “Good News”, the opening sketch of the show, newscasters (played convincingly by Nixon and Rehner) enthusiastically recount the good news of the day, throwing it out to reporters in the field for sports and weather. But where the sketch could become a sharp commentary on the onslaught of the “bad” news we seem to be inundated with these days, the jokes turn towards individual idiosyncrasy and bawdy, self-deprecating humor. Perhaps the sketch felt tone deaf given its place in my own news cycle, but it seemed like a missed opportunity to skewer either the kind of news that seems “good” compared to 2016’s relentless headlines, or the kind of self-indulgence it takes for someone to ignore the bad news.

Similarly, the ensemble’s take on gun control seriously misfired. Compared to the sharp brevity of the bowling teachers sketch, it sprawled pointlessly. Nixon and Ryan Kappmeyer play scientists investigating politicians’ reactions to the words “gun” and “control”. The rest of the sketch proceeds too obviously from there, as the politicians faithfully repeat each word individually but devolve into confusion and absurd paroxysms to avoid actually saying “gun control”. Despite Nixon’s scientist’s admirably snide curiosity, the sketch relies on quick cuts to cast members’ physicality. While their stage presence works elsewhere in the show, here, it falls short as the butt of the joke. Even the most dedicated bodily contortions can’t save this sketch. It’s a feel-good nod to the current political climate in the United States, offering obvious observation, but no new insight. Again, it feels like a missed opportunity for a tighter, sharper take on the gun control stalemate, particularly against the background of Chicago’s own swelling gun violence.

Still, Unlike Company’s talented ensemble finds both the humor and the melody in adult life, urging us to laugh at our own indulgent banality. If the show stumbles, the cast’s palpable enthusiasm frequently carries them through. Brian Posen’s excellent direction and sketch-stealing turn as a disgruntled piano man keep the show tight and fast-paced. At their best, Unlikely Company provides an exuberant evening of comic relief.

Unlikely Company will be playing at Stage 773 on Fridays at 10:30PM through the end of July.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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