Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Abbie Fest XXII: Alive & Kicking

Photo from The Plagiarists Facebook page shows Ryan Palmer on left; Gregory Peters on right.


As I arrived at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre a little after 3PM this past Saturday, Artistic Director Rich Cotovsky was getting psyched for his role as Rex in Matt Borczon’s short piece Wild Dogs. Cotovsky has performed in this two-man tragicomedy at every Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins festival since 1989, pretty much with a different co-star each time. Wild Dogs, a tale of a deranged loner who takes in a timid businessman who’s been tossed out by his wife, exudes an in-your-face attitude that’s well-suited to the Abbie Fest and the Mary-Arrchie itself. The theatre group has always aimed for a streetwise grittiness.


Cotovsky held up a package of Twinkies, much to the delight of the audience, and as Wild Dogs unfolded, he rewarded their enthusiasm by tearing it apart with his teeth. With whipped cream smeared across his nose and beard, he howled and scampered on all fours, before taking a massive swig of Mad Dog 20/20. The Abbie Fest was set up as theater in the round this year, and sitting so close to the action, I was able to appreciate the various comic nuances Cotovsky continues to bring to a role he has performed numerous times.


Abbie Fest likewise continues to entertain and surprise as it charges into its third decade. Longtime fans are familiar with the nonstop schedule that kicks off at 7PM on Friday and runs through late Sunday night; the eclectic mix of seasoned professionals and mistake-prone rookies tackling everything from Harold Pinter to an early hours talk show about oil; and above all, the sense of support within Chicago’s theatrical community. The artsy, dramatic ambience of the Abbie Fest’s earliest days has given way to a raucous party spirit, and there are a lot more comedy groups on the schedule now.


So there was something reassuringly old school about watching members of the Dandelion Arts Center performing A General Revue of Dorothy Parker’s Situation by Brooke Johnson and Dina Marie Klahn. It wasn’t clear if this was a straight up presentation of the witty Parker’s own words, or a work that was inspired by her. Either way, a likable cast breezed through clever scenes with well-crafted dialogue. No belly laughs, but definitely satisfying. Later that day, Lance Eliot Adams, who has been affiliated with Mary-Arrchie for several years, read from his own novel, A Voice I Heard.


Black Forest Theatre founding members James Moeller and Carla Hayden have been gracing the Abbie Fest with their off-kilter charm for several years now. Their latest piece, The Dogstar Rages, was penned by Moeller, and displayed his usual fascination with clever word play and quirky characters.


Existential Crisis, a duo comprised of Matt Peterson and Mike Cherry, poked fun at various conventions of theater and sketch comedy, like banging into each other during a blackout, or jumbling various elements of Shakespeare. They finished with a funny but poignant bit about a guy who’s devastated to learn that his hero from back in their high school days wasn’t the sexual stud his overblown reputation made him out to be.


Journalistic integrity should prevent me from reviewing a performance by Famous In The Future, the group I spent 20 years writing and performing with, but what the hell, this is a blog. FIF used clever dialogue and imaginative costumes in a funny opening bit that mashed Alice In Wonderland with the current Tea Party movement. Long time member Desiree Burcum’s original song exploring how America embraces mediocrity scored some major hits on current celebrities. A sketch about two mountain climbers debating whether they should save the life of a circus clown who had fallen into a ravine was laugh out loud funny, especially for those of us familiar with founding member Frank Carr’s pathological fear of clowns.


A.S.S. IV by The Plagiarists once again featured the hysterically funny Gregory Peters portraying a pompous professor introducing the works of an obscure (purely fictional) playwright. The revue bounced between rapid fire eloquence to can-you believe-we’re-actually-doing-this-onstage gross-outs, with the highly polished cast somehow holding the insanity together. At this point it was after 10 o’clock, and the huge crowd that had gathered in the Mary-Arrchie’s storefront venue on Sheridan Road made it impossible for audience members sitting toward the back to see much of what was taking place. But there was a positive vibe in the air, and for those of us who have been coming every year since Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins I, it was great to see this freewheeling celebration still going strong.

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