Let Them Eat Chaos at the Second City | Live review
Bring your passport to Let Them Eat Chaos. In the Second City's 101st Mainstage revue, an ensemble consisting of veteran performers Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich and Steve Waltien and Mainstage newcomers Ross Bryant and Tawny Newsome leaves Chicago behind in favor of a space- and time-bending revue that loops in Vienna circa 1819, the opening of the Panama Canal, the distant future and more. If Grant Achatz attends the show, it will inspire at least a dozen new menu ideas for his restaurant Next.
Let Them Eat Chaos crackles with new ideas and spirited risks. Gone is the musical number that typically opens a Mainstage revue; left in its place is a stripped-down, improvised scene in which the ensemble takes turns playing the same character. It's a simple scene and it'd be easy to call it underwhelming were it not so true to the kinds of openings encouraged by gurus like Del Close, designed to warm up an ensemble and enhance group mind at the beginning of an improv show. The nature of the opening might even change from night to night. You may have to see this show more than once.
Lots of ideas are bandied about. We are living in a very strange time, Newsome's time-traveler proclaims in an early scene. We're also living in a busy one, as demonstrated by a woman so self-absorbed she hits major milestones in life (marriage, sex, childbirth) while so consumed by text messaging she never once looks up from her phone.
It was the scenes set in distant lands that captivated the most, including a sailor answering a siren's call, a telenovela-like exchange between a Central American poet and his illegitimate daughter, and banter between an American and Scottish soldier set against a backdrop of rubble and intermittent explosions in the European Theater of World War II. I'm not sure the Mainstage has ever strayed this far from ubiquitous mayor jokes, relationship scenes between thirtysomethings and impressions of South Siders. It was a welcome departure.
The set design makes these faraway landscapes possible. A curtain, so fiery red it will burn your retinas, is the only attention grabber on an otherwise threadbare stage. But this relatively blank canvas allows director Matt Hovde and his design team to create vivid backdrops that transport the audience from the high seas to deep space to a dream version of Chicago with the push of a button.
There are plenty of moments in which each ensemble member puts his or her best self forward, but to single out one would diminish the rest; that's not how you review an ensemble-based show. Suffice it to say I liked them most when they were given new muscles to flex. In an Act II standout, for example, a group of first graders are pressed with the challenge of drawing pictures based on an audience suggestion (in this instance, popcorn). The scene was one of the evening's biggest gut-busters thanks to the original interpretations each ensemble member produced.
There were also times when the material hewed close to formula. In a musical number, Newsome and Laurent take the NRA's grating and persistent claim that more guns are the solutions to America's problems to its logical extreme. It's joyous but also familiar territory. Ditto a number between Blackmon and Bryant that illustrates the stark differences between a black and white rapper.
If Let Them Eat Chaos falls short anywhere, it's in the lack of anarchy suggested by the revue's title. "Chaos is the nature of the universe," says a character in an early scene. That might not be what the visiting masses want to hear when they visit the Second City, but I'll take it anytime.