By K. Michael Moore
Cedar Rapids – Some of my most amazing memories are of sitting in some friend’s basement, or around a table at some dive, tossing back a couple beers and having a bull session with my creative, often acerbic, always dreaming, creative friends. The unplanned conversations that spark a “You know what we could do…?” brainstorming session, that maybe leads to nothing at all but a couple laughs and a memory, or maybe becomes the next sensation. SPT’s Tales from the Writers’ Room series makes me feel like I’m watching those conversations every single time I go. The SPT troupe has this unplanned feel to everything, and it’s beautiful. They don’t waste time worrying about perfection, they throw together the funniest, best stuff they’ve got and see what sticks. And the result is really, really enjoyable.
For those who don’t know, Tales is like Cedar Rapids own SNL – a variety show of local writers and acting talent, with musical interludes between sketches. As far as I understand, like SNL, the performers come together in the week ahead of the 2-night set, and cram like hell to memorize, block, and put up a full evening of sketch comedy, spoken-word, and often electrifying concert-style music. Each season has a theme the writers must utilize, and each specific session has a specific topic – both must be included or at least nodded to in each sketch. In addition, each session includes the talents of the usual band of SPT ne’er-do-wells, and also 2 Guest Actors, a Guest Writer, and Musical Guest Artists. This season’s theme is “7”, and this weekend’s particular session was 7 Year Itch.
Maybe it’s partly because they don’t have to do it every week, but rather every couple months, giving local writers Jason Alberty, Akwi Nji, Lindsay Prince, and Adam Witte a chance to bubble their best words onto the page (this session also includes the work of Guest Writer Zachary Johnson) — but SPT has carved out a deeply devoted audience base, and their Tales shows tend to sell out hard core… but that’s not because they space it out, or because each session is only two shows (clever-ass marketing that that actually is): it’s because it is funny-ass writing, enacted by talented-ass performers, and mixed with talented-ass musicians. It’s because, like those basement conversations with buddies, this crew is just having fun doing what they love. They are working hard at it, but they are working hard at having fun.
7 Year Itch seemed to me a dangerous topic for a full night of fresh material, but SPT was up to the challenge. While admittedly some of the sketches pretty blatantly “cheat” the 7 and Itch rules, they run a gamut of stories, issues, and topics, from a hilarious pun-laden Scooby Doo parody to exercising with one’s “Fit Bitch” (two of my personal favorites right there) to Nji’s touching and powerful hip-hop slam poem for her daughters, “Shed the Skin.”
(Seriously… Velma… I just can’t even… my entire childhood changed. I’m not lying.)
Like any fresh work, there are a few sketches this time around that don’t quite keep up with the rest, but that’s because “the rest” are really damned funny and well performed. It’s not all gold, but it’s all pretty much precious metal with jewels embedded.
Mixed in we find some of the Corridor’s leading musical talent – here I especially want to cite Gerard Estella, Jane Pini, and Janelle Lauer, all SPT regulars, and their musical guests Matt Brooks, Greg Kanz, & Dave Ollinger. These folks can wail. The music is also selected to be thematic, and some really great performances made me remember why I love live music.
SPT has a knack for bringing great guest talent in, and like the other guests mentioned above, Katy Slaven and Aaron Brewer are no exception. Both are gifted artists in their own right, have a connection when onstage together, and blend well in the fun atmosphere that SPT celebrates. Brewer, well known locally for his beautiful voice, even lends a hand on the musical side by leading up a cover of Green Day’s “Give Me Novacaine.” Brewer is very funny, too—especially as Shaggy in the Scooby Doo sketch, but across the board.
Slaven is another local favorite, and with good reason. She is at once totally empowered as her own person and completely invested in her characters. And best of all, she’s having fun with this. Her work in “Fit Bitch” was so funny the audience lost a few lines because we were laughing so hard.
Whether it’s Lindsay Prince portraying a drunken Katie Couric, or Jason Alberty’s Barry White-esque “Business Time” (all the more funny since his wife was in attendance!), this production has too many highlights to highlight.
Those of you who know me know I am a big fan of “real” theater – artistic work that takes itself seriously. But SPT also reminds me that I am a big fan of something else, something, if possible, even more alive than that – artistic work that takes itself unseriously. Art and artists who let themselves be imperfect, to remind us that the point of this beautiful thing we love is and should be as imperfect as we are. That beauty and truth come in all forms, and like most things in this world, most of those forms are a little cracked. There’s a lot of great theater in the Corridor, but honestly, there’s nothing that does what SPT is doing.
SPT’s Tales from the Writers’ Room: 7 Year Itch only runs February 20th and 21st, at CSPS in New Bohemia. I’m told it’s already sold out… but I advise you to check out their upcoming and future productions. The next is scheduled for April 4th. Get your tickets, because it’s almost sure to sell out too. Find out more at http://www.spttheatre.org/ and http://legionarts.org/.