Entertainment » Theatre

Sedaris siblings’ ’Book of Liz’ makes a return

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Dec 28, 2010

For fans of the Sedaris siblings' wacky brand of comedy, the books released this year from Amy [Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People] and David [Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary] help to satiate a seemingly endless thirst for fresh material from the Raleigh, N.C.-raised family known for their quick-witted, queer-friendly quirks.

But for Chicagoans who have already burned through the Sedarises' latest works, the Windy City-based theater troupe Chemically Imbalanced Comedy has you covered with their latest run of the "Talent Family" Sedaris-penned play, The Book of Liz. The play, now in its third run at Chemically Imbalanced, has become a bit of a signature piece for the company since they debuted it three years ago.

Angie McMahon, Chemically Imbalanced founder and director of The Book of Liz, said the show -- "a heart-warming, quirky kind of tale" -- as a nearly instant hit for her company, garnering much stronger reviews than a 2003 local production of the show by Roadworks Productions and owing a great deal to the Sedarises' strong fan base in Chicago. Amy was a member of the Chicago-based Second City comedy troupe, while David has long been a popular contributor to the Chicago Public Radio-produced This American Life radio program and podcast.

Quirky comedy

The play fit the bill for McMahon as soon as she read it in early 2007. The Book of Liz tells the story of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a Squeamish (think Amish) woman at the center of a cheese ball-making community in Clusterhaven. Liz becomes disenchanted with the pressures of sustaining the religious community’s business and decides to try and make it on her own, eventually working as a waitress in a restaurant run by recovering alcoholics.

"This show was specific to my taste and right up my alley," McMahon said. "I personally lean toward quirky comedy and that’s come through in this specific production."

Chemically Imbalanced launched the production later that year and were shortly thereafter selling out most of their shows as word of mouth spread. The show’s success allowed the company to secure their own theater space for the first time.

McMahon said the show’s cast - in the enviable position of following in the footsteps of the show’s original cast, which starred Amy, Jackie Hoffmann and David Rakoff when it was first performed in New York in 2001 - has served at the center of the show’s success. Many have remained in the production through each of its three runs. Sarah Rose Graber, McMahon said, has been particularly spectacular as Liz, the character originated by Amy.

"I don’t think she’s replicated or duplicated anything Amy did," McMahon said of Graber. "She definitely didn’t try to be Amy. She’s really brought her own energy and life to the character that’s really stood on its own."

In addition to strong performances from the play’s leading characters, McMahon said she’s enjoyed watching the show’s smaller roles - all the way down to a restaurant customer named Rudy who enjoys a handful of lines, but mostly just sits - grow and expand as the cast has gotten the chance to explore the nuanced motivations and tics of their bizarre characters. That flexibility has contributed to the cast’s willingness to stay with the show through the years.

"I enjoy developing the small characters who weren’t necessarily meant to be fully fleshed out," McMahon explained. "The actors have been able to find a deeper meaning in things and tighten their performances up a bit. They find new things even nightly that surprise each other on stage."

And what have the Sedarises thought of Chemically Imbalanced’s take on their work? While neither David nor Amy has seen the show, when one cast member met David and showed him their show poster at a book signing in 2007, David admitted the company had found a better Mr. Peanut costume than the original show had.

The Book of Liz, originally intended to run through December 18 at the Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park Rd. in Chicago, is expected to be extended through late March. Performances run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Log on to www.cicomedy.com for tickets and more information.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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