Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg
By Catey Sullivan
There’s a nightmarish edge to “Dream Freaks Fall From Space,” the Second City’s 106th mainstage revue. Sometimes it’s obviously intentional: In the opening bit a lone drummer (Nate Varrone) informs the audience that we’re in the year 80085 (aka Boobs year if you’re reading it backward on a digital calculator). Also, we’re in a nightmare that we can’t wake up from.
That nightmare takes many forms over the course of “Dream Freaks,” many of them having to deal with the 45th president. The worst (and funniest) of these appalling horrors is a wordless dance break, performed by a troupe of giant-headed 45s, hair the color of jaundice, skin like Kraft singles, mouths pursed like moist black holes. There’s nary a breath of dialogue as the cast cavorts like some kind of hellish corps de ballet. It’s surreal, funny and upsetting – which sums up the aesthetic in director Ryan Bernier’s revue.
Written and performed by the six-person ensemble (Varrone, Kelsey Kinney, Tien Tran, Ryan Asher, Jeffrey Murdoch and Tyler Davis), “Dream Freaks” is one of Second City’s weirder, darker outings. There’s a bizarre, recurring non-sequitur about a house-sitter who mistakenly keeps watering a plastic plant. There’s a therapy session that involves an Asian woman telling a story about a cannibal camping trip. Tien Tran’s tale unfurls almost entirely in an Eastern language (Vietnamese? Chinese? Japanese? Tagalog? I couldn’t tell) that somehow leaves no room for doubt about the gruesome end of her hiking partner. And there’s the random gigantic penis person (Varrone again) who bobbles across the stage like some kind of misplaced pornographic punctuation mark.
The roughly 100-minute show works either because of or in spite of its off-the-rails oddness. It’s hard to say. Either way, it works. The ensemble makes the venue feel like nitrous is being piped in through the sound system. And as with dentist’s office nitrous, you’ll find yourself goofy with laughter even when the action has progressed to things that should by all rights make you start screaming.
The duality is summed up rather brilliantly in another silent bit. Spoilers wouldn’t do, so I’ll just mention that it involves Bonnie Tyler’s cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and a killer clown. The song is all aching, wonderstruck love. The clown? He’s something else entirely. There’s a similarly brilliant conflation of seriousness and loopiness in a bit that has Kinney confronting Waldo (of “Where’s Waldo” fame) about his constant disappearances. The mix is a marvelous as it is ingenious.
The dichotomy shows up again in a sketch about catcalling, wherein the females of the cast find themselves aggressively objectified and taunted. “So presidential!” squeals one of the women, and they all giggle in accord. Such is the pass that we’ve come to: A world where a wagging tongue between two fingers qualifies as the highest form of statesmanship.
The highlights of “Dream Freaks” are its musical numbers, ably steered by music director and composer Vinnie Pillarella.
The showstopper comes courtesy of Davis and his electric guitar. Wearing funky shades and exuding velvet-smooth suave, he serenades his newly found lady-friend. It seems like a Barry Williams parody until he gets to the chorus. Again, no spoilers, but holy-Cheetos-in-a-skin-sack – it just might be the funniest, truest thing you’ve heard all year. The number’s a show-stopper, both in terms of delivery and content.
A second musical number also knocks things out of the proverbial park, with Kinney, Tran and Asher playing a folk group at Lilith Fair, circa 2035. Their “lady song” slays on multiple levels – it’s satire for sure, but the daffily rendered lyrics are gold. Finally there’s Tran and her crowd-surfing infant, the former delivering a mommy-and-me worthy tune about whether your baby is gay.
Minus the power solos of some of their onstage peers, Murdoch and Asher make the most of the innate vulnerability both radiate, tentatively finding romance in a “sewer prom” sketch that surely would sink like a sack of hammers were anyone else on the planet to attempt it. And Murdoch leads the big finale, with a nonsensical, three-chord chorus that has him stripping down to his superhero skivvies with the jubilance of a toddler with ADD unleashed in a cotton candy factory.
Break them down, and it seems like there’s just no way the majority of the sketches in “Dream Freaks” could be remotely funny. But they are funny, immensely so. The show is crafty reflection of a year when things that should be beyond the bounds of possibility just keep happening. As “Dream Freaks” makes clear, being able to laugh is crucial to survival.