By Russ Bickerstaff
The Bucks won a close one against the Timberwolves at the Bradley Center on the evening of December 16. Across the street that night the late 19th century decay of the Tuner Hall Ballroom looked like something out of Escape From New York. Lights that were cast into a vast darkness mixed with light coming in from downtown to bathe the mostly empty 7,000 square feet in a pleasantly eerie visual drama. The restoration of the Ballroom is far from complete, giving the overall impression of a once great performance space that is slowly waking up from a long hibernation. Alamo Basement and Insurgent Theatre were set to perform a series of alarmingly short bits – an evening they’d titled: Gorilla Theater: Berzerk!
Before the show began, Alamo Basement’s Mike Q. Hanlon took audience-suggested sentences and playwrights were then given the task of incorporating them into theatrical bits they were given 10 minutes to write. The bits were set to be performed at the end of the show. Someone in the audience suggested something about low-fat lard that fell on deaf ears. Local stand-up comic Rich Greenfield suggested, “The dog went home,” which was perfect. Anyone who has ever attended an improv comedy show knows that the vague and ambiguous suggestions tend to illicit the best responses.
In the less than two hours that followed, roughly 20 – 22 short plays quickly cascaded through the shadows. Prior to the evening, local writers were given lines from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and asked to form whole bits of staged comedy and drama from them in ten minutes or less. As evidenced by the show that night, the writers had met with mixed success. Voices and footsteps echoed around the darkness announcing the title and author of each piece. The lights raised and a piece was performed by actors dressed mostly in nondescript black garb. The lights fell and there was applause mingling with the sound of actors scurrying about in preparation for the next bit. With the audience flanking the actors on two sides with folding chairs in the big empty of Turner Hall Ballroom, voices echoed a bit much at times and it was a bit difficult to hear all the dialogue, but Alamo Basement and Insurgent Theatre put on an unsettlingly enjoyable evening with Gorilla Theater.
The bits ranged in style quite a bit, but the overall feel was one of surrealist comedy. Stand outs included Hanlon’s eerie Anticipation and Wes Tank’s vividly surreal The Un-Rainbow Kind. John Manno’s Iphegenia’s Doggie was the story of a woman losing her pet dog as told in the fashion and passion of a Greek tragedy complete with chorus. Shannon Smith’s I Never Heard of Uglification featured perhaps the most visionary visualization for the space. A narrator from the second floor balcony vividly spoke words detailing actions performed in silence on the stage below. The Ballroom’s balcony was used in a number of pieces, most prominently in Alisa Rosenthal Haywire Android Sluts and the Limber Hobgoblins Who Love Them. Rosenthal’s bizarre comedy quite nearly lived up to its title. A man and woman played strange social games while playfully killing people from the cockpit of a giant robot. The actors were framed within a giant piece of corrugated cardboard. As they killed, screams could be heard from the darkness below. Amidst the fading decay of Turner Ballroom, it all felt quite convincingly like terminally hip theatre at the end of the world. You’d scarcely believe the Bucks were winning across the street.VS
Insurgent Theatre’s next production will be John Manno’s Golden Apollo at the UWM Studio Theater January 19 – February 3. For more information about Insurgent Theatre, visit www.insurgenttheatre.org. For more information on Alamo Basement, visit them online at: www.myspace.com/alamobasement.