Old Jokes

The back room at the Woodlawn Tap is packed. Men in skinny ties fiddle with cigarette packs; women in long skirts and sweaters chat over martinis. Two women at the bar discuss Eisenhower while, nearby, a man tells his girlfriend about the latest XKCD comic. As attendees enter the lights dim, and the noise dies down. A group of performers begins to reimagine the first performance of the 1950s Hyde Park sketch comedy troupe, the Compass Players.

Reenactments tend to straddle the line between now and then. The guests are here for a night straight out of the ’50s, but cell phones, the city smoking ban, and modern beer signs allude more to the present than the past. The free cigarettes were made of candy and the drinks, though plentiful, were definitely offered at 2011 prices, but the Compass Players succeeded in narrating the group’s early history, bringing its playful spirit back to 55th and Woodlawn.

Paul Durica, the founder of Pocket Guide to Hell, the traveling tour group, played the part of the knowledgeable bartender–“Fred Wrencovics”–and supplemented the sketches with the history behind them. He explained that the Players’ original performance took place on July 5, 1955 at the nearby Compass Bar, which was demolished in 1960 and is now the site of the Hyde Park firehouse. The idea for the Players came from David Shepherd (here played by Chris Rathjen), an Ivy League-educated actor and director who arrived in Chicago in the early ’50s. He initially envisioned a socialist People’s Theater built around commedia dell’arte-style improvised sketches. Shepherd met director Paul Sills (played by Court Theater’s resident dramaturg Drew Dir) while working in the Chicago theater scene. Sills came from a theatrical family–his mother, drama teacher Viola Spolin, developed several improvisational games at Chicago settlement houses in the early ’30s. Together, Shepherd and Sills founded the Compass Players in the back room of the Compass Bar. The Compass Players begat the Second City, which in turn begat a half-century of talented comedic actors from Bill Murray to Stephen Colbert.

Durica went on to introduce the characters that made up the original Players: students, dropouts, alums, hangers-on, and aspiring actors. Their first performance featured a young, rebellious Elaine May (Laura Mackenzie). Sills claimed they “were all in love with her.” Some notables from the early days included “MASH” actor Roger Bowen, Andy Duncan–who appeared in the 1977 minor league hockey comedy “Slap Shot”–and the late Severn Darden, who may be best known today for his role as the nefarious Kolp in the fourth and fifth “Planet of the Apes” sequels (“Proving that we can’t all go on to direct ‘The Graduate,’” someone deadpanned onstage).

The night continued with sketches, mostly developed by Paul Sills from improv games first introduced to him by his mother. As Fred pointed out, the performance on Monday could not consist of  word-for-word reenactments–no transcripts of the first performance even exist. One standout sketch was the “Living Newspaper,” drawn from the actual headlines on July 5, 1955. At one point in the performance, former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov confronted each other over the phone–or, more accurately, Dulles tried to confront Molotov, who remained sanguine: “Is beautiful day here, Dulles. We are holding Russian government outside today!” In a later scene, Sills interrupted an improv exercise to give his actors pointed criticisms. This succeeded both as history and as comedy, and highlighted Dir’s own acting skills.

Not every sketch got laughs; then again, not all of the Players’ sketches were meant to be amusing. As Sills put it, the famous “Game of Hurt” was “not very funny–at least not at first.” And though it began as comedy, another scene ended on an unexpectedly dramatic note. At this stage in the history of improvisational theater, the form was not as closely bound to comedy as it is today.

The final third of the show was improvised on the basis of audience suggestions (overheard: “Adlai Stevenson!”). At times the material was straightforwardly funny, playing off of common comedic tropes. At other times, the scenes were difficult to understand, either because of their references to unfamiliar elements of ’50s culture or simply because the jokes simply fell flat. Of course, this also may have been true to the original performances. Sills claimed that, after an especially poor show, the Players would run down 55th Street to Promontory Point and jump into the lake.

An icy dip wasn’t necessary for the Players of 2011, as the show succeeded on its own terms. The audience was appreciative, though perhaps not as hard-drinking as their ’50s counterparts. The performers energetically engaged in the history they reenacted. The candy cigarettes, though impossible to smoke, were still fun to chew on, crush underfoot, or dangle between one’s fingers. That seemed just about right.

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