Those ascending the Abreact’s steep flight of stairs for the first time may be a bit surprised to find that this do-it-yourself theatrical and performance space doubles as a loft home. It’s nonetheless an inviting atmosphere where patrons are treated as guests and invited to sit on the large couches, drink free beer and take in the atmosphere of an old industrial space decorated with street signs, old cameras, and walls festooned with bric-a-brac. The seating in the house is equally quirky, with dozens of chairs, sofas and couches perched on flats, rising back to a summit of about 12 feet.
Founded in 1998, the space is shorthand for Abnormal Reaction, a name that Abreact resident Phil Boldin says “just stuck.” After five years of action on this small stage, the space has mostly relied on word-of-mouth, especially among the tight-knit improv and theater scene, to build a small but dedicated following. Admission has always been free, with costs defrayed by donations at the door.
Those hoping to taste the delights of do-it-yourself theater can come down this weekend and see You Sank My Christmas, directed by Second City main stage player Jeff Fritz. In fact, this show is the product of a host of Second City understudies sneaking out from under the Olympia Entertainment tent and using that autonomy to explore some themes that are a little more relevant and a bit edgier than what one can expect under the watchful eye of the Ilitch empire.
The cast members and writers lash the usual whipping boys of improv comedy: Family, media, office politics, psychoanalysis and other topics “ripped from the headlines.” The skits are amped up with a few adult drug references, some adult sexual situations and even a little cussing.
The holiday season offers a host of anxieties to lampoon, especially the pressures of family, all of which makes good grist for a farce. And the cast plumbs the depths of Yuletide craziness with the story of Stephen Stephens (Sean McGettigan), a sullen teenaged joystick jockey, who, in a moment of candor, asks the mall Santa (Matthias Schneider) for a dad for Christmas. Deeply moved by this request, the pleasantly unhinged Santa grants the boy’s wish by kidnapping him and forcing him to be his son.
This “Father Christmas” gag is complemented by the antics of Stephen’s single mother, Janet (Lauren Bickers), a doting, smothering, nasal mom who spouts clichés of motherly cuteness, crying at one point, “Mommy loves you lots!”
Michael Ishaq appears as television reporter Swin Johnson, who chronicles the boy’s disappearance as a sort of cavalier deathwatch. The kidnapping holds unexpected consequences for Stephen’s slack-jawed, dimwitted chum Todd Denisfouski (Michael McGettigan, brother of Sean), who winds up being wildly popular at school because of his supposed bereavement.
The players are a tight ensemble, but Michael McGettigan stands out for pouring such demented energy into his performances. Physical comedy and mugging are the improv norm, but McGettigan, recently seen in a convincing dramatic role in the Zeitgeist’s production of Hamletmachine Hamlet, goes over the top, at one point giving wild, pop-eyed, limb-contorting caricatures of a traumatized youngster going through the great sucking sobs of regression.
And the entertainment is rounded out with the usual skits and buzz-bits, including office mayhem and dating gone wrong. Best of all, the troupe takes hoary improv situations and injects them with a little provocative relevance. One of the staler staples of spoof, the quiz show skit, is here enlivened with post-Sept. 11 creepiness when the host spouts grinning right-wing rhetoric thinly disguised as questions. Will the real American please stand up indeed!
The show is true to the improv form, so expect a stark set and sparse props, but perhaps this is well-suited to the raw simplicity of the space and the relaxed, beer-quaffing audience. While the set is spare, the sound cues are right on the money with holiday music, game-show sound effects and hilariously frantic “action” music from television news.
It’s sometimes a bit rough around the edges and maybe even a little too sassy for its own good. But You Sank My Christmas is, like the game Battleship, all about hitting and missing, featuring a cast experimenting with what works and what doesn’t before each new audience. You can’t fake the lively fun of seeing people perform material they stand behind.
You Sank My Christmas closes Saturday, Dec. 20, with an 8 p.m. show, including music from the Fozzies. Suggested donation is $7-$10. Abreact is at 442 E. Lafayette, just west of Beaubien. Call 313-575-6628 for more information.Michael Jackman writes on a variety of topics for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]