Get Ready for Batsu! Where Improv Meets Pain

Batsu1 The brave warriors of Batsu! prepare for their challenges. Photos by Johnny Knight. Batsu! Is the kind of gameshow where you might drink sake, you might sign a waiver if you are up for a little on-stage challenge and you might find yourself doubled over in the kind of laughter that stems from shock and disbelief—especially if any of the punishments (yes, punishments for losing) are being doled out to your friends. But it’s all in a day's work for the eight entertaining members of the improv troupe Face Off Unlimited. Batsu! is both a game show and an improv performance and it takes place in the intimate environment of the 2nd floor theater at Kamehachi restaurant, Chicago’s original sushi restaurant. The stage was small, the sound system was mighty and the cast was enthusiastic, so it did take a few sips of sake to adjust to the situation, but soon the burlesque of co-host Samanthasan  (Samantha Garcia) warmed up the crowd and we were told that she would help mete out the punishments. Batsu means punishment and also ‘incorrect answer’ in Japanese. The concept of tying a punishment and exaggerated reaction from the punished in with the triumph of the winner has become a staple of Japanese variety shows and says as much about the correctness and repression of the culture as spanking postcards said of the Victorian era. As a culture, we may not be so uptight that we need to see people writhe in pain just to get a little relief from our existential angst, but this is America, so if you toss a little improv action at it, we’re up for anything. The host, Jin Kim, was charismatic and kept the pace brisk, tossing in Japanese phrases here and there, making jokes, interacting with the audience and even keeping the drunk heckler in check. Soon the action began, with challenges between cast members Tyler Garamella, Nate Mount, Joe Tex , Steve Grande and a few audience contestants (the ones who willingly signed the waiver). There was a rap roulette, some charade-like storytelling, a beer tower relay, some household Olympics, a creative break-up game and even a quick wit challenge. The four stalwart cast members who took the challenges rose to the occasion, displaying lightning fast wit under duress, probably to avoid the punishments that were fiercely meted out by co-host Mio Sota with the triumphant demeanor of a dominatrix—dressed unfortunately in a school girl uniform. What Batsu! lacked in gender role and cultural sensitivity it made up for in creative punishments. We watched in amused horror as the cast subjected themselves to being shot by a paint gun, smacked in the face, thwacked by giant rubber bands, abused by a big chicken, forced to perform a split and even to don shock collars. Every punishment they endured may have been a little over the top, and lest we decide they were faking the pain, they were happy to showcase their welts. It was the most mildly perverse, alcohol fueled, comically salacious fun one could hope for on a Thursday night and if you sign the waiver to participate, you may get free beer and sushi for all of your laughing friends—at only a slight cost to your dignity,which I will not spoil by recounting details here. Batsu! will be in Chicago Thursday and Friday nights for an open ended run at Kamehachi, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets are $25.50 or $40.50 for VIP admission, which includes 2 tickets and one hachimaki (headband) that you wear to keep the sake flowing your way.  
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Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.