All comedy is local

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By Doug Deuchler

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Any performance you see of the new improv production, The Real Housewives of Oak Park at Open Door Theater will be different. That's because improvisational theater is usually a type of comedy where much of what happens on stage is unplanned or unscripted. Since the show is created collaboratively by the cast, incorporating input from the audience, there is no way the actors will ever replicate what's been done during previous performances.

It doesn't matter whether you are familiar with the Real Housewives francise. I occasionally would see an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta so I know the territory. These programs are not exactly documentaries since the focus is on personal conflict and entertainment, never education. Supposedly the shows are unscripted real-life situations, featuring non-professional actors. But plot-lines are shaped, with premeditated scripting and misleading editing. 

The formula is relatively cheap and simple: loud-mouthed, liquored-up drama queens, ladies of leisure all, are committed to over-sharing the details of their lavish lifestyles while showing off their designer duds and multimillion-dollar mansions in gated communities. They engage in epic cat fights early in the season, then spend the next 20 episodes rehashing it every time they get together.

The Real Housewives of Oak Park uses some of this formula in which the women live their lives openly in front of the cameras but their conflicts never get as ruthless as what often hits the fan with their TV sisters. There is no "mean girls" sensibility, nor do they constantly glamorize vulgarity and materialism. But they do capture the often narcissistic behavior and ridiculous arguments. It's very enjoyable hearing all the village references and recognizable local situations.

I attended the show opening night, and the performers were amazing in how they incorporated elements the audience provided.

This particular improv group has no official name, which I found surprising. They're all quite adept at spontaneous comic acting. Each cast member has worked with The League of Improv Heroes, but the ensemble has not yet identified their band by a title. 

The director/creator is Mary Olivieri. She plays a bossy, politically correct lesbian who comes on stage before the first scene opens to ask the audience for a variety of ideas, situations, names, and such. "We want specificity," she said. Olivieri jots down all audience contributions and, amazingly, it all gets incorporated into the show. A female character is named Euclid, for instance, because Olivieri had asked for an Oak Park street name. Another is called Austin Garden because she asked for a favorite park. 

The diverse female cast includes Kristen Farmer, Mary Fahey Hughes, Michelle Thompson-Hay, and Brittany Davis. Vincent Kracht and Matt Tiegler play a variety of male roles, from an "over-coddled" son to a ditsy doctor.

A lot of humor is based on local issues, such as the perceived difference between north Oak Parkers and those who reside "south of the Eisenhower." 

Racial issues are addressed as well. One of the African American women has a white husband. Another housewife remarks, "If I didn't want diversity, I'd go to Naperville."

Some of the women are aggravated by the proposed new Taco Bell slated for the corner of Lyman and Madison. "McDonald's is fattening up our kids just fine," one says.

The night I saw the show, the plot revolved around conflicts that occur while planning a fundraiser at Cheney Mansion.

The ladies, who knock back mimosas, are excited about a class offered at the library in "adult coloring" because the librarians don't care "if you don't stay in the lines."

Although some of the scenes didn't generate much actual comedy, the performers built on one another and never seemed lost with all the references and new material contributed by the audience. They work quite well as a team.

Real Life Housewives of Oak Park looks to be a crowd-pleaser production during its short run. The evening of locally-infused improv comedy runs a little over an hour with no intermission. There will be four more performances on Fridays and Saturdays, May 12 & 13, and 19 & 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $20. 

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