Monday, July 30, 2012

REVIEW: TRUTH IN COMEDY AND SEX - 'La Soirée' at Riverfront Theater

David O'Mer in "La Soirée"

Chris Jones, theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, recently postulated that Chicago's theatrical brand is, and should be, one of truth and grit. I certainly dig that notion, but those two terms – particularly “truth” – are pretty lofty, and when over-considered, somewhat meaningless. Of course, the great and powerful “truth” is an entirely subjective entity that is motivated by, among other things, one's own life experiences. No one can write a standard prescription for “truth,” but you absolutely know it when you see it.

Chicago theatre prefers to wash its truth down with a loud cup of grit. However, I find comedy to be a more truthful form than its more lauded sister, drama. Naturalist drama, always entertaining and potentially seismic, though it may be, usually exists as a mere approximation of emotion – and a socially acceptable approximation, at that. But if an actor is really funny onstage, they are generously giving the audience a glimpse into how they deal with their own real-world traumas. A sense of humor is an awfully revealing quality, and, as we all know from those awkward dinner parties, a frightening one to expose. In that regard, comedians and comedic actors are the unsung heroes of the stage, in my opinion.

After an endless season of epics, the plays that stick out in my mind as the most creative and poignant are Dean Evans’ bouffon comedy “Honeybuns” and The Hypocrites’ quirky riff on Greek tragedy, “Sophocles Seven Sicknesses.” Those terrifically funny and sensual plays reminded me that, in this instantaneously global consciousness that is largely desensitized to tragedy, laugher is our predominant and necessary catharsis. Today, we cry enough. The titanic rise of YouTube, “memes,” television recaps, etc. is a testament to that pressing need for release.

And now, in the spirit of those pieces comes “La Soiree,” a sinister new cabaret-meets-burlesque-meets-circus at the Riverfront Theater. The international tour of "La Soirée," making its American premiere here in Chicago, is far more genuinely silly than most modern day cirques and spectacles that embrace the word "circus" as a highfalutin, avante garde expressionism. "La Soirée" has much more in common with contemporary performance art and the darkened cabarets of old than Cirque du Soleil or a three-ring circus. "La Soirée"  relies on the eccentric, actual personalities of its performers in addition to their uncommon, superhuman abilities. And it is those mortal imperfections and discolorations that contribute an intimate sizzle and an unexpected relatability to this awfully sexy sideshow.

Riverfront, though imbued with ample seating, restricts its audience to a few rows of added folding chairs that surround a relatively tiny, circular, bright red stage on the floor’s center. The rest of the fixed seating is darkened and obscured by haze. The effect in the oversized circus tent on Chicago Avenue is watching an after-hours adults only show, long after Barnum and Baileys has closed up shop and gone to sleep. “La Soirée” becomes your own giddy little, hypersexual secret – and the closest you will ever get to being in an episode of “Scooby Doo.”

Each and every performer has a simmering sexuality, and just about every act, no matter how aesthetically profound or artistic, has some component of Chippendales-style, rip-it-off stripping. And the audience - or, I should say, the morally questionable faction of the audience, which proudly includes yours truly – willingly gobbles up every minute of the frivolous debauchery. The tear-away clothing is as hysterical as it is alluring - a fantastically confounding blend of sensations.

The sexiness is most alive in David O’Mer, a totally ripped gymnast who allows the audience to join him for a super hot bath. Adorned in tight jeans, O’Mer slides in and out of the water-filled tub, flying through the air and splashing water everywhere he goes. Another performer, owning his body with the confidence of a thousand bodybuilders is Le Gateau Chocolat, a big, stunning drag queen – operatic in size and genre. Le Gateau’s voice reverberates around the tent as he struts about in a bright green lycra body suit, covered in question marks. Singing Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” La Gateau leads the audience in the chorus, “Umbrella, Ella, Eh, Eh, Eh” before approaching  a handsome couple and finishing the song, “Gay, Gay, Gay!”

I was also rather taken by Brett Pfister’s emo aerial ring performance, musically accompanied by none other than A-Ha’s “The Sun Always Shines On TV,” a favorite song of mine. Pfister, wearing stretchy skinny jeans, shows off his tremendous flexibility, passively rolling his eyes anytime the audience doesn’t applaud loudly enough. Similarly specific attitudes and stories abound in blonde and bubbly Scot, Mooky’s first live performance for an audience after completing a two week drama course, and Susannah Martinez, who goes on a scintillating and treacherous journey with a bunch of handkerchiefs.

As the curtain call commenced, and each wacky performer took their place around the stage to rapturous applause, they held each other’s hands and let out irrepressible giggles. The audience was certainly clapping for, not only their talents and feats of strength, but too their genuine expressiveness and willingness to let their freak flags fly. Escapist though "La Soirée" may be, if you’re looking for truth, you will find it under this tent. –Johnny Oleksinski

"La Soirée" runs at the Riverfront Theater through August 5.