Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mrs. Gruber's Ding Dong School . . . REVIEWED!

Okay, so this is going to be a Mrs. Gruber week at the RvD blog. A couple of reviews below:

Don Hall over at An Angry White In Chicago gave us a glowing review!

" . . . Parenthood is, from what I'm told, a blessing and a curse. Children are wonderful in their guileless ability to see those things in our daily walk through fresh eyes; they're also us without the societally driven stop gaps that prevent us from behaving like the selfish, self-absorbed monsters we start out as. And so we lie to them to give them false hope, to control them, to give us just a moment of respite from the screaming and greed inherent in the human animal.

We tell them fairytales about mythical creatures that reward us if we behave a certain way. We tell them that crime does not pay, that if they study hard they will get a good job, that they each are smarter and more talented than the kids next door. And we hide the regrets and disappointments we have in our own lives, the hard truths that only living can teach, and the true nature of our fellow beings.

Spoofing the legacy of children's programming (from Romper Room and Captain Kangeroo to Sesame Street and Zoom!) is a tired cliché. It's been done so often (Pee Wee's Playhouse, Avenue Q, and a billion different Off Off Broadway and Off Off Loop theaters and in basements in Seattle, LA, and almost every major and minor theatrical and televised outlet) and so well, that to do a spoof of children's television is a trap for most comedy groups.

Taking cues from
Wonder Showzen, RvD has avoided the trap and come up with a truly successful blend of embracing all that feels cheesy and sugary about the genre and exposing the dark hypocrisies that those who create this work have bubbling underneath. And it's really, really funny in that dark, tasteless way that Wonder Showzen is - the only thing missing is the device of using actual children.

Topping and Wendling have assembled a strong, funny cast (including the deranged, funny and a little scary talents of Rebecca Levine as Mrs. Gruber) and, in spite of the slight production values (not cheesy and cardboard-y enough to look crappy on purpose but not glossy enough to feel genuine - except for the Diversity Chicken suit which looks exactly right) manage to craft a fun and high energy evening that never overstays its welcome and ends with a solid Upright Citizens Brigade style "gotcha."

Aside from the writing, which is tight and to the point for the most part and only rambles when its supposed to, the fun is in both the bizarre situations presented and those strange little moments that catch you off guard into an unasked for guffaw.

Many sketch comedians forget that while the Pythons, Kids in the Hall, and Mr. Show played wild, off-the-wall characters they were also making biting satire underneath. The scene of a snippet of a Mary Poppins-esque nanny recreating the "Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag" moment provides us with an actual crazy homeless man selling cans for a dollar on the premise that fish have lasers; a happy, go-lucky cloud gets bored being upbeat and tries to learn how to be a racist because it looks more exciting than the tedium of sugar cookie joy; the Career Day that includes the morose experience as a Sex Crime Reenactment Doll. Each caught me off guard and each made me laugh out loud.

The small moments that the actors bring to the table are equally fun: the drunk racist sings his tuneless and rhymeless song about racism and then does a strange drunken box step dance; a kid with a lazy eye is considered expendable; a cloying puppet tries to make counting a cancer patients coughing fits a learning game. And just about everything Mrs. Gruber says and does leads to the inescapable conclusion that she is not which she pretends to be.

The mugging is kept to a minimum and the frequently awful singing is balanced by some great vocals by Jill Fenstermaker and the surprisingly sweet voice of Topping. And the show doesn't end until a good three minutes after you leave the theater so stick around out front for a moment.

If you haven't checked out Robot vs Dinosuar in the past, this is the one to introduce them. I've seen them a number of times and, with Mrs. Gruber's Ding Dong School, they get it just right."

And J.H. Palmer at Gaper's Block compared us to Canada Day and said we had a young Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell in our cast!

"Robot vs. Dinosaur, a writer-centric improv ensemble that originated in New York and was brought to Chicago in 2007, is enjoying a run of their show: Mrs. Gruber's Ding Dong School, at Gorilla Tango Theatre. A series of sketches loosely based around a preschool classroom, the show opens strong but loses focus. The premise of a school as a reference point seemed unnecessary, and even the best sketches ran too long, losing steam before they ended.

Some genuinely funny moments were had, but if this show were a national holiday it would be Canada Day, not the 4th of July - no fireworks but plenty of sparklers, and a few standout roman candles in the forms of Erin Morrill, Andrew Kraft, and Anthony Ellison, who came across like younger versions of Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell and Bill Murray.

Ellison was a great choice for the opening sequence, but we didn't see him again until the last sketch, which is a shame. Morrill and Kraft's portrayals were consistently strong, and the cleverly written songs marked high points in the show."

It's exciting to get reviews, and even though it wasn't clear to Ms. Palmer that Anthony Ellison was part of the opening act, not part of the Ding Dong School show, we can certainly chop some stuff out of those reviews to make it sound like we are the greatest show on Earth. If only they would have actually said that!

Anyway, we will post more reviews here if and when we get them. Come see the show and judge for yourself!


Aly said...

I loved the show! Great cast, and sketches! Pat Daily and I saw it together this past Friday. The ending was unlike any other ending ever, but perfect. He reviewed it for The Pipeline eNewsletter, which is local to Wicker Park Bucktown. See link w/ review in it (I can't isolate the review) http://tinyurl.com/ylcf28t

Nat Topping said...

Thanks Aly! We're glad you both enjoyed the show!