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November 14, 2003

Off-Off declares war on tame humor; Off-Off wins

Every Friday night I find myself with the same problem: what to do to fill the time between the end of dinner and the beginning of other late-night activities. Not much fits into that odd two- or three-hour window. It's not really enough time to head downtown for wild carousing, but it's also too long simply to hang around Uncle Joe's looking sophisticated and nursing a frappé mocha (unless you are more hip than I am, which is highly likely). In any case, you see my dilemma.

There is one bright star on the otherwise bleak horizon: University Theater's Friday night Off-Off Campus show. The show offers a welcome respite from the boredom usually associated with the evening lull.

So I made my way directly diagonal from the Reynolds Club to the University Church where Off-Off Campus performs its comedy routine. For those of you who don't know, Off-Off Campus is the indirect descendant of Chicago's famous Second City comedy theater, where comedians such as Mike Myers and Bill Murray launched their careers.

Tickets for the show are $4 at the door, and curtain time is officially 9 p.m. every Friday night from fourth week through eighth week. Of course, if the cast falls behind schedule, as they tend to do, the audience is never reticent about voicing its unrest. The vaguely derelict but much-loved theater known as the Blue Gargoyle is on University Church's second floor. Despite sparse aspects, the theater is extremely intimate. I suggest arriving early because seating is limited (although there are arguably no bad seats), and you just can't be too close to the action.

This year's troupe is the 17th generation of Off-Off performers as well as part of University Theater's nearly 106-year history as a student-run theater program. Time has only improved their craft. The cast, which is responsible for the show all the way from the concept to the script to the performance, consists of James Adelman, Ramiro Castro, Jr., Dave Maher, Rebecca Phillips, Leila S. Sales, and Lucy Wall, with Jeremy Barr directing.

The show's title, Gorilla Warfare, refers to the evening's last sketch involving a pair of gorillas searching for romance, which might have been even more amusing had the rest of the show been mediocre. It was anything but. This year's cast has a wonderful dynamic, which allows them to work successfully with a wide range of material. Though some of the sketches might be considered offensive and derogatory, it's all good comedy.

Whenever I attend an Off-Off show, I am always surprised to see the stage so bare. I don't normally think of comedy as acting per se, but an important component of the Off-Off show is the cast's ability to work with minimal props as effectively as any classical actor (the theater's stage rarely has anything more than a chair for each of the cast members). For the Off-Off cast, much of a sketch's comedic value comes from the well written script and the characters' motions working in tandem; the scene that comes to mind involves use of the drug Ecstasy, an aphenphosmphobic (that is, someone with the fear of being touched), his reluctant girlfriend, and two of the aforementioned chairs.

The format of the show strikes a nice balance between scripted sketch comedy shorts and more loosely arranged improvisation segments. Both rely on audience participation to strike the right notes, especially the improvisational scenes, which can either fly or flop according tto the audience's mood. During these parts of the show, the cast asked for audience suggestions to direct their opening gambits. The success these scenes enjoyed is a tribute to both the skill of the cast and the boisterous inventiveness of the audience.

Among the highlights of the scripted sections of the show were sketches about Kobe Bryant's dubious trial and Fox's now-notorious Joe Millionaire, both of which reveal wry commentary on popular culture. Perhaps more specific to the University was the insightful glimpse into gaming culture ("Warren, do you love Diablo II more than me?" "Debbie, I love you both—just in different ways."). I think it is safe to say that we all know someone like this. You may even be this person; no need to raise your hand. Perhaps somewhat disconcertingly, I really liked the disturbing sketch featuring kindergarten rappers.

If between the looming stress of final exams, papers and the reading for a course you've been putting off since first week, you decide to take one study break between now and the end of the quarter, I highly recommend leaving the Reg to see one of the last two performances of Off-Off Campus's Gorilla Warfare. Off-Off Campus's true strength lies in its ability to poke fun at everyday hypocrisies and our most dearly held beliefs—and still have the audience laughing. Can you really afford to miss this?