Review: The Second City e.t.c.’s Grinning From Fear to Fear Delivers From Start to Finish

(L-R) Chuck Norment, E.J. Cameron, Mark Campbell. Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.

The Second City e.t.c.’s revue is a big deal--for actors and with any luck, its attendees. For the cast of comedians, the revue represents anywhere from 8 to 10 weeks of writing with a grueling rehearsal schedule to produce three acts over two hours. Two that they’ve built and scripted, and a third shaped by improv. And if you’ve ever been to a subpar sketch/improv comedy show, you might realize what a feat it is to keep an audience engaged and keep the laughs coming over that long a runtime. Luckily for us, there’s a reason Second City’s wall is full of household names. Casts each year seem to keep proving they're best in class and Grinning From Fear to Fear, the Second City e.t.c.’s 43rd annual revue, keeps the shine on the name, introducing six incredibly talented folks we’d be surprised not to see rise to the top in the future. Grinning dishes out everything you can take. It is political, poignant, slapstick, silly and surgically precise in providing a show that if anything, seemed to be over too fast.

After an elaborate sort of Esther Williams musical foray that brought the comedians on stage to us, Grinning From Fear to Fear subverted expectations of an easy, comfortable slide into things with a meet-the-parents scene that managed such an honest awkwardness that we were squirming in our chairs for a while, wishing somehow it’d resolve.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about the Chicago comedy scene is its blunt honesty and fearlessness, and Second City never seems to shy away from talking about the issues. The writing is thoughtful without losing humor and the cast never lets the words down.

Some of our favorite moments in the show asked complex questions, like what racial identity in America should be and is now--is it better to blend or stand up and out? Here began some of the standout performances of the night, with cast members E.J. Cameron and Atra Asdou being as absurd and over the top as they were thoughtful and sensitive. Both Cameron and Asdou really breathe life into each of their characters, giving them depth even as they also deftly wield shoes as weapons.

(L-R) Chuck Norment, Atra Asdou. Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.

Other favorite moments were simpler scenes about acceptance. One scene in particular is likely to stick with me far beyond the writing of this article, and handles issues of trans identity and parenting with such heart, humor and skill it was able make the room pin-drop quiet with its tension,  and resolve having us chuckling and simultaneously wiping silent tears. This was another testament to the acting prowess of the cast, and Andrew Knox and Chuck Norment knocked it out of the park, managing to have an amazing on-stage chemistry in the scene, both handling their individual characters with utmost care, ensuring they weren’t cardboard cutouts and instead, real people in real situations. Norment was particularly nuanced here, not backing away from emotional challenge.

It’s worth attending for that scene alone, but there’s not a real letdown in the show. Grinning from Fear to Fear flows very well, with musical interludes and one-liner vignettes peppered in amongst longer scenes to provide a quick-payoff punchline that still manages sophistication and keeps you on your toes. Meanwhile its meatier scenes don’t drop the momentum, either.

L-R) Chuck Norment, Laurel Krabacher, Atra Asdou, Mark Campbell, Andrew Knox, E.J. Cameron. Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.

There’s a worst-case surprise party, menstrual humor, a really creepy mask and an entire game show, hosted by a sadistically happy and boundlessly energetic Andrew Knox playing the part of castmate Mark Campbell’s overactive brain in a few rounds of "Toss and Turn." Knox is absolutely hysterical and could power the room with sheer wackiness and enthusiasm, just as easily as he can be subtle and sweet in the next, but this frenetic nightmare game show host was his favorite role of all.

This was also probably the best set piece of the night, full of crazy lights accentuating the nightmares your brain can bring you when you’re just trying to sleep. Every cast member ran through poor Mark Campbell’s tired mind, and it was a great showcase of the cast’s physical and straightforward comedy talent, as well as some great sound and light work by Jacob Shuda and Kyle Anderson.

Rarely in any sort of stage performance would the entire cast merit getting specific mention, but this is the true exception. Case in point, Laurel Krabacher, who brings Rita Rudner or Rachel Dratch to mind with her satirical melodramatic flair and great physicality. Give Krabacher posterboard and scotch tape and she can make you gasp for air with what she creates. Meanwhile, Max Campbell brings a warmth and soul to the “stereotypical” nerdy guy, as well as edge and intelligence.

Bob Knuth’s set design was great, allowing for versatility without missing personality, and under Anneliese Toft’s direction, hummed along at a perfect pace. Grinning From Fear to Fear really reflects the craftsmanship that gives Second City its rightful place as a pillar of American comedy. Each of the cast are able to be subtle or bombastic, with fantastic energy, musical talent and acting capabilities, and able to read and feed a room full of people with different energies and viewpoints of their own in such a way that it’s equitable and intimate.

(L-R) Atra Asdou, Chuck Norment, Andrew Knox, E.J. Cameron, Laurel Krabacher,
Mark Campbell. Photo by Frank Ishman.

No one group or person is safe from potential roasting, but no one is alone. If the main joke doesn’t land, you’ll find yourself cushioned from the blow with great physicality, a rich underlying meaning or a perfectly timed zinger that does the trick. While not as tightly focused around a central theme as some of their past revues have been, it’s nevertheless cohesive and has great through lines. Expect a lot from Second City and you will not be let down with this revue. In fact, we suggest you see it just so you can say you were there when this fantastically funny cast first broke on to the scene.

Grinning from Fear to Fear is the Second City e.t.c.'s 43rd revue. It runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 11pm, and Sundays at 7pm in the e.t.c. Theater at 230 W. North Ave, on the second floor of Piper’s Alley, and will be playing through the end of the year. Tickets start at $21, and you can purchase them on the website by clicking here.

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Marielle Bokor