Cackling With the Crack

The new Rattlebrain troupe is revving up Denver's comedy scene.

If Rattlebrain is a fair example, Denver-area comedy clubs have come a long way since the days when shows consisted of a succession of middle-aged guys wearing large turquoise jewelry and performing sexist monologues. The Rattlebrain Theater Company has taken over the basement of the venerable D&F clock tower on the 16th Street Mall, refurbished it to the tune of some $300,000 and created a pleasant 178-seat venue with a bar, small black tables, and drinks served while you watch the show.

The skits in Spackle the Crack, the current show, are scripted, not improvised (an improv offering called Ride plays at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings and features bits based on suggestions shouted by the audience), and they represent pretty middle-of-the-road humor. There's not a lot of edge, no sacred cows are gored, and there are almost no references to politics or current events. This is a place for conventioneers, out-of-towners, downtown businesspeople, couples on a date. But to do Spackle justice, it doesn't rely on the usual tired old fare, either -- there are no takeoffs on talk shows, for example -- and the production reveals imagination, originality and quirkiness.

The evening begins with a lone female dancer -- an office staffer, apparently -- silhouetted on the stage while waiting for workers to come and fill a long fissure in the wall. When these workers arrive, they're in tutus; they prance around competing with each other for the honor of spackling the crack. Men in women's clothes represent an age-old joke that includes the Trockaderos' terrific ballet parodies, but Rattlebrain's version is truly inspired. There are Michael O'Shea's wild leaps, Jeff Kosloski's attempts at finesse, and the coy, mincing poses of Christopher Todd Grundy, who seems to be inhabiting his own lunatic vision of the Lilac fairy in Sleeping Beauty. The dance culminates in a wonderful moment as the three men join hands for a prancy little trio reminiscent of Swan Lake's Dance of the Cygnets.

Jeff Kosloski, Christopher Todd Grundy and Michael O'Shea in Spackle the Crack.
Jeff Kosloski, Christopher Todd Grundy and Michael O'Shea in Spackle the Crack.

Details

Presented by Rattlebrain Theater Company
Through May 25, 720-932-7384
www.rattlebraintheater.com
D&F Tower, 1601 Arapahoe Street

After that, we get "Biddies," in which two elderly women (Jane Shirley and Lisa Rucker) run off a couple of gang members, played by Kosloski and Grundy, who've had the temerity to trespass on the ladies' side of the street. The gang theme reappears in "West Side," when the thugs are challenged by O'Shea and Derek Hartman as out-of-it Ivy Leaguers dancing bits of Jerome Robbins's famed West Side Story choreography.

Most of the sketches revolve around one joke, developed to the point of absurdity and beyond until it comes to a stopping point. I don't remember any pieces where the humor relied on several intertwined strands of action, a sudden veering off into the unexpected or a reversal at the tail end. (Perhaps the unfolding developments in a skit called "Real Men" offer the most surprise.) This one-joke approach works best when the joke is most original: in "Dog Whistle," for example, where the behavior of men hearing a high-pitched whistle becomes more and more outrageous; "Special Ed," which involves a student who's actually dead -- or, as the script has it -- "life force challenged"; "First Flight," in which the hillbilly family of an inexperienced pilot invades the cockpit again and again and more and more uncontrollably to congratulate or excoriate him.

Periodically throughout the evening, Jesus pops in to set everyone straight. The world might be a better place if he'd spread his services out more -- to leaders in the Middle East, for instance -- but perhaps Rattlebrain can't spare him.

I suspect someone in this troupe harbors a love of music in general and old musicals in particular. In addition to "West Side," there's a delightful scene in which a young woman expects her first date to resemble a scene from an old musical, complete with soaring -- and for her date, completely disconcerting -- melodies. And the between-scenes music, which helps weave the evening together, is always apt, funny and well-chosen.

The performances are very good and mercifully free of mugging. Notable among a uniformly talented group is Jeff Kosloski, who not only impersonates a varied gallery of characters, but fully takes over their minds, and Jane Shirley, who's light and clever and charming and who, like Kosloski, brings occasional moments of feeling to her roles. Hartman shines in "Real Men"; Grundy has an odd, delayed rhythm that's all his own and can communicate volumes with a single eye roll; and Lisa Rucker demonstrates her range as, first, a perplexed yuppie mother in "Special Ed," and then the loud, purse-swinging termagant of "First Flight." The actors work extremely well together, too, and if they don't exactly rattle your brain, they do provide a good-humored and thoroughly professional rattling good time.

 
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