Sketch show is funny when No Rules does it.
The most admirable thing about sketch comedy as an art form is this – it just gets itself out there. You have an idea? Write it down, punch up the jokes, and get it on stage or on film. Take too much time to polish it and the topicality is gone. It thrives more on Big Ideas than improv, which thrives on adrenaline and the absurd way our brains associate thoughts. Sketch comedy is about intellectual instincts and gut reactions. Its beauty is in its messiness.
Take Saturday Night Live for example. A 40 year old American institution, arguably the most important thing to happen to modern comedy in its era…and yet people are usually talking about how terrible it is. Oh sure, they remember how brilliant [insert cast member] was in [insert season, sketch, or year you were in high school], but “now it’s a mess!” The nature of the beast is feast and famine – as a sketch writer you thrive on the comedy RBI. Much like baseball, you barely remember the strike outs, but the rare home runs are lifetime memories.
The No Rules Show Sketch is to be admired, not just for bringing live sketch comedy to DC (a major metro region strangely lacking in permanent Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, or Second City institutions), but for delivering a very high RBI. Whatever my after-the-fact opinions on each sketch, I can honestly admit to laughing pretty consistently the entire evening. I fondly recall a few home runs as well, in casting, performance, and writing.
TNRS boasts a wildly funny troupe at its core, built from comic actors rather than comedians. This has the beneficial effect of sustained characterizations (absurd though they may be) rather than “joke delivery systems”. There are absurd celebrity impersonations and stock types, sure, but always sustainable characters underneath. You can admire how, in one sketch, Angela Miller drops in a “practically perfect” Julie Andrews voice, but the key to her being as funny as she is is the weary exasperation she exhibits while working with Sherry Berg’s Ariana Grande character. We can equally admire how delightfully insane Berg’s Grande character is (oh, and it is insane) precisely because of how grounded Miller is. You can rely on this kind of anchoring throughout the show.
It’s tempting to go through the cast and slot them into their sketch comedy “roles”, but that would be under-serving to the unique skills of each one. As mentioned above, you’ve got Miller’s anchored quirk and Berg’s bat-out-of-hell, go for broke energy (this might be the best, most focused work I’ve ever seen from Berg). You’ve got Jamie Smithson, committing 300% to every choice, oozing presence and offering the audience the comfort of knowing, whatever else might happen, he’ll get you laughing in a sketch. You’ve got big, explosive, varied choices coming from Joe Mallon, yeoman character actor reliability in Richard Pelzman and Lisa Hodsoll, and an admirable daffiness in Kaitlin Kemp.
You’ve also got Joshua Morgan, No Rules artistic director, as your host of the evening, bringing obvious ease and charm to the affair. Besides memorable turns in a few miscellaneous sketches, Morgan’s big contribution is a recurring character. I’m almost remiss to talk too much about the character, lest I diminish the surprise, but suffice to say that it is one of the most bizarre, specific, off-beat things I’ve ever seen, and a genuinely delight every time he appears.
As hinted with the RBI metaphors above, not every sketch is a winner, but the good ones are VERY good. My favorites? Written by director Brian Sutow, one is trip to the garden of Eden, where Adam (Mallon) and Eve (Kemp) receive their…”unique gifts” from God (Morgan), along with primers on how to use them. Michael Malarkey contributes an exactly-the-right-length tribute to our favorite kind of babysitter (Smithson) when we were kids (here represented by Mallon). Beloved DC actor Rick Foucheux contributes a fantastic parody commercial, pitched by Smithson, for “El Blotto” beverages (Smithson is the star of evening, appearing frequently and offering the highest of the many highs of the show). And, in the tradition of SNL’s often inexplicable “12:55am” sketches which gain their power from sheer weirdness and boldness, Sutow here shows us what life would be like if CBS added a sitcom from Lars Von Trier to its lineup, starring Stellan Skarsgård (Pelzman) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Hodsoll).
The evening’s comic direction, courtesy of Sutow, keeps things going at a high clip, and the unobtrusive but sharp design (Collin Ranney’s costumes and backdrop, Zachary Dalton’s lights, Christopher Baine’s sound, and especially Sierra Banack’s many and varied props) gives the performers maximum ability to shine.
The No Rules’ Show
May 5 – 17
No Rules Theatre at
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $20 – $40
Details and Tickets
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one criticism, though. Admirably, The No Rules Show, like any good sketch comedy, deals with sensitive, topical issues. Most of the time these are handled very well (especially gender politics in the Adam/Eve highlight). But one thing that sits in my head, even days later, is that a few sketches delve into racial issues, including a Redskins-related sketch from Mallon and Gray West and a very provocative rap written by African American writer Ashley Nicole Black, which make their points effectively, but inadvertently hang a lantern on the fact that we’re watching an all-white troupe tackling these issues. One wonders how the topicality could have benefited from a more diverse ensemble in these moments.
That aside, I heartily recommend taking the plunge into The No Rules Show. Sketch comedy is too rare in this town, and the energy of seeing it live is worth experiencing. Think, too, about the fact that as memorable as much of the material is, now is really the only chance you’ll ever have to experience it as intended. Great, timely comedy makes points about the world right now, and next year, these sketches will be gone.
And, if we’re very lucky, replaced by even more timely comedy by the terrific No Rules Show gang.
The No Rules Show Sketch . Written by Ashley Nicole Black, Rick Foucheux, Michael Malarkey and Brian Sutow . Directed by Brian Sutow . Featuring Sherry Berg, Lisa Hodsoll, Kaitlin Kemp, Joe Mallon, Angela Miller, Joshua Morgan, Richard Pelzman and Jamie Smithson . Set and Costume Design: Collin Ranney . Lighting Design: Zak Sandler . Projections Design: Brian Sutow . Produced by No Rules Theatre Company . Reviewed by John Dellaporta.