The Answer Men | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Answer Men 

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at the Transient Theatre

The Answer Men bills itself as "the only political improv, sketch, stand-up comedy show in existence as far as we know"--which, I suppose, underscores the troupe's narrow worldview. After all, what the hell are Aaron Freeman and Rob Kolson doing in Do the White Thing just a few miles south of them?

Appearing erratically at the Transient Theatre--in order to get in to see this late show, you have to pound on a bolted door--the Answer Men have energy and talent but little substance, and even less originality.

They do in fact offer up improv, a few sketches, some stand-up, and feints at audience participation. But most of it isn't convincing. Topicality--a staple of political comedy, particularly improv--is curiously absent. The political satire includes a bad Bush imitation and dated jokes about canned presidential aide John Sununu. There are no issues here, no ideas. In fact, there's little to distinguish the Answer Men from any of the other improv groups in the city, with or without a political billing.

The Answer Men begins when audience members are asked to each suggest three things for the group to say and three things for the group to do. The suggestions are made in writing, tossed into a couple of hats, and set on the edge of the stage. But these suggestions are more of a tease than any kind of true catalyst for improvisation. The night I saw the show the Answer Men went to these hats less than a half dozen times, and often struggled just to read or make sense of the suggestion drawn.

When it came to things to say, cast members tried valiantly to develop material but it seldom went anywhere. And if the Answer Men did any of the things that were suggested, no one but the person who made the suggestion knew it--since the cast never shared the suggestions with us, we had no way of knowing how close they came.

Another Answer Men tactic was to have a cast member ask the audience to suggest an object he needs to get from another cast member. The first time out was a disaster, with Don Washington trying to procure a cactus from Eric Fredrickson. Washington kept repeating essentially the same lines, letting Fredrickson's setups go right by.

Mercifully, when that device showed up again, Fredrickson--a dark, sinister character--was assigned the task of getting a kidney from George Washington III, the group's most versatile player. Though the material was relatively familiar, Fredrickson and Washington had enough chemistry to take the interest up several notches. Unfortunately, the skit sort of fell off the stage when neither player could figure out a punchy way to end it.

Most of the time the Answer Men tried desperately to be wacky. Every now and then one of them would go darting across the stage for no apparent reason, shouting out something like "Surf's up!" Because the other players seldom seemed to know how to play off this kind of absurdity, these antics were merely distracting.

The best sketch was a story told by three characters, one assigned by the audience to play an animal (a newt), another a stereotype (a cheerleader), and the third an ancient Greek deity (Zeus). Titled "Zeus Conquers All," it was another Fredrickson and George Washington adventure: Washington was absolutely hysterical as a lustful, peppy cheerleader for the gods' football team.


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