Introduction to Life | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Introduction to Life 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe



at the Annoyance Theatre


Manifest Theatre Company

at Avenue Theatre

The phrase "life-affirming," usually reserved for teary melodramas or precious musicals, is not a phrase you'd expect to hear in connection with the Annoyance Theatre, whose regular menu is messy, irreverent comedy. This is Metraform, and Happy Blueballs, Your Life Is Waiting!, billed as its only "rock operetta," is messy, irreverent, and very, very funny. The big surprise is that it's--well, sorta sweet.

When we first see Happy Blueballs (Mark Howard Sutton) he's bouncing around what may be his mother's womb, or perhaps some other special room just down the hallway (so to speak). The room is white, with a cutout of a woman's belly silhouetted against the backdrop, and next to it is an entrance camouflaged as labia. Then Leonard (Jim Carrane) arrives on the scene, in a middle-management suit a shade too small for him. "Corporate" has sent him to prep Happy Blueballs for the next great step: life. Eight committee members are in line to test Happy, and it's Leonard's job to steer him through. One by one the committee is revealed, and each member symbolizes one of life's little hang-ups, passions, or curve balls: Animal Instinct, Unqualified Love, Lust, Morality, Self-Doubt, and Insanity, among others. Each gives Happy a piece of clothing (he starts out in nothing but boxer shorts) until he's fully dressed.

It's an absurdly simple premise, like a children's pageant, and collaborators Joe Bill (who did most of the writing and directing), Dave Adler (who did most of the music and lyrics), and the charismatic cast revel in it. Love (listed in the program as "Honey" and played with sugary assurance by Susan Messing) is dressed in pink frills and ballet slippers; she and Leonard perform a shaky pas de deux reminiscent of a grade-school dance recital. The matronly figure of Optimism (Bib Arthur, allowing her lovely mezzo-soprano to disintegrate into a church-choir shriek) admonishes Happy to behave like "a good little soldier." Self-Doubt (Jodi Lennon), in green rags and a fright wig, asks Happy if he has a hall pass and reminds him to color inside the lines. As each visitor leaves, Happy sings about what he's just learned in a deliberately strained Oliver Twist falsetto. The entire cast advises us outright, with deadpan sagacity, that "there are a lot of symbols in the world." The funniest in Happy Blueballs is God in a ratty terrycloth robe, canvas shoes, and black socks, a whistle around his neck. As played by Ken Manthey, he has the pissed-off air of a football coach to a sixth-rate high school team, and he preaches comfortable mediocrity. When Happy complains to Leonard about him, Leonard replies, "He can be as boring as he wants. He started the company."

Don't expect great things on the rock-operetta side. Though some of the singing is strong, sometimes it just barely scrapes by. There is some decent electric guitar and some pretty fine piano, courtesy of Adler himself, but his score is not exactly memorable. The performances carry Happy Blueballs. Sutton resists the temptation to play Happy as a cipher, giving him an adventurous spirit. Watching Carrane vogue with Kate Flannery should lay to rest any doubt that he doesn't need to say a word to be funny. Lennon balancing her entire body on her chin is almost worth the price of admission. The performances don't feature much polished technique, but there's a lot of raw energy headed in the right direction. Happy Blueballs is messy but engaging. And, one can't help but think, life-affirming.

What do you get when you throw a pretentious, strutting New York actor into the midst of a bunch of wide-eyed, well-meaning southern amateurs mounting a radio production of Romeo and Juliet? A Beverly Hillbillies episode is what comes immediately to mind, but this particular jumble of dueling stereotypes is Manifest Theatre Company's first production, RadioJuliet.

Written and directed by Eric Eberhardt, the sole member of Manifest Theatre Company, the play needs several rewrites before it can measure up to even the lowest sitcom standard of integrity. It proceeds on the assumption that there is much hilarity to be found in Shakespeare being slaughtered by corn-pone southern actors, good ol' boys and gals who haven't the wit to understand the Bard. As if this sort of sniggering condescension weren't bad enough, the play itself is barely coherent at times.

Why does the New York pro, gulled into believing that Julia Roberts will be playing Juliet, continue to believe it long after a mousy little southern girl introduces herself to him as the actress playing the part? And why does he feel makeup is necessary for a radio production? Why does one lascivious Hee Haw-style sweetie assume that the best way to endear herself to him is to turn out the lights and tie him to a chair? If these amateurs are so dense about Romeo and Juliet, how is it that they recognize quotations from Hamlet right off the bat? Are southern accents really funnier when they get shriller? What are a couple of decent actors like Ted Rubenstein and Brendan Sullivan doing in this mess? It's hard to believe that any small southern town could possibly be as culturally and intellectually bankrupt as this production.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Stephanie Shaw

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Manic Mondays Frances Cocktail Lounge
November 20
Lit & Lectures
October 14

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories