Culture

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.

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