Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg
By Bec Willett
It’s a packed house for Second City’s 107th main stage revue ALGORITHM
When the cast appear on stage they’re high-energy, confident, and their transitions are sleek – especially thanks to veteran stage manager Craig Taylor and music director/sound designer Vinnie Pillarella. From the top, we’re introduced to the premise that drives the show: a glowing light bulb with an omnipotent voice serving to signify a Facebook-like algorithm supposedly determining the show’s content. It’s a very current concept and serves well as a device to frame and control the structure and timing of the show. The topics covered in the surrounding sketches are those you’re likely to find on your Facebook feed: Trump, race, escape rooms, immigration, gun violence, dating apps. Many of these are very funny, especially those that effectively satirize the inanity of certain socially accepted behaviors, such as one about two white middle-class women selling Arbonne-style products to each other. However, just like scrolling through your Facebook feed, each sketch only touches on an issue before moving on. I kept waiting for the ideas to reappear, for the themes to develop, for the next sketch to use the context of the last to go deeper. But it never happened. Instead, it felt like I’d just answered the front door at the call of the doorbell, only to be met with a blank space. Considering the overall finesse of the piece, and the maturity in craft it was a perplexing choice.
I noticed a heckle from behind me. And then shortly after, another one. I took a moment to look at the audience around me: a bronzed affluent man in a plaid blazer, a well-to-do couple eating shrimp cocktail, then a wink and handshake between two white men amid the twenty-something mostly-white professionals further down the front. And just behind me, the source of the derisive eruptions: an older white-haired man. As the show continued, his displeasure at anything critiquing the current administration increased in volume, seemingly in correlation to his alcohol consumption. It was only then that it dawned on me that what I thought of as this cast pulling their punches, for this audience, might to them seem like pushing boundaries. The light touch now made more sense but also left me wondering: just how much did they leave out?
From the library of information in the press kit, I pull out the press release. It opens with Second City calling itself the “most influential and prolific comedy empire in the world.” While I initially balk at the self-declaration, it’s just a moment before I realize that it’s likely true – or close to it. This is an institution that through their stages and training both locally and nationally is a major player in determining what and how to be funny – as set by a specific set of people – and they know it. While many struggling storefronts may have greater control over their artistic output, Second City is an institution that owes its profitability to its ability to not only know their audience but to cater to them, and their 107th Revue is another example of that.