Four years ago, when Forest Park resident Alan Brouilette was writing comedy bits for the Roe Report on WLS-AM, old friends from Oak Park and River Forest High School came up with a bold plan: bring the internationally renowned Fringe Festival to Chicago.
“After all, there are lots of great actors in Chicago, so why not do it here?” said Alan’s wife, Emily Brouilette, a certified financial planner. Emily was promptly tapped for the Fringe Festival board. The festival was being started by her OPRF class of 1995 buddy, Adrienne Guldin, now the fest’s international recruiting director.
The fest suddenly had a goal: recruit 50 acts to play two weekends at their opening gig in the Pilsen neighborhood.
Alan Brouilette was asked, “Can you come up with an act?”
Why not? He thought and quickly cobbled together an enthusiastic gang of amateurs, people with (responsible) day jobs doing things like programming computers and running nonprofits but who shared what Alan calls “a twisted sense of humor.” It was a ragtag theater troupe, launched over drinks and never taking itself too seriously.
He christened them the League of Miscreants and quickly vandalized a Les Miserables logo with spray paint to read “Les Miscreants.”
Spring ahead four years and the Miscreants have performed sellout shows every year at the Fringe, as well as repeat performances at the Gorilla Tango Theater in Chicago.
“A big, wonderful mess,” is what Brouilette calls it. “We are amateur enthusiasts entertaining ourselves. We enjoy this for 10 days and go back to our jobs.”
The Chicago Fringe Festival plays through this weekend at its new location in Jefferson Park.
Roasts were the League’s first successes. Specifically, roasts of beloved fictional characters. He started by pointing his cruel word processor at A.A. Milne’s stuttering, sweater-wearing darling Piglet. Hilarity ensued.
The next year, the group skewered Santa Claus — with nasty comments from Jesus, Mrs. Claus, Rudolph, the elves, etc. Pushing far beyond the boundaries of good taste (always a goal), the troupe sang a parody of White Christmas that Time Out magazine called “hysterically racist.”
“Hysterically racist?” said troupe member Shelby Bower, of Oak Park, shaking her head. “Can you believe that?”
The shock value and humor earned the troupe an invitation to perform at Christmas time at Gorilla Tango. Last year, they performed an all-women show roasting Cinderella. It included Alan’s mom, Nan. That show also was picked up by Gorilla Tango.
This year, the Fringe has moved north to the Polish and somewhat conservative neighborhood of Jefferson Park. There, popup storefront theaters will present shows such as “Get Ready for the Vagina Fairy” and “Weirdos: an Ethnography of Deviance,” adjacent to insurance agencies signs reading, “Najlepsze stawki ubezpieczenia” (Best insurance rates). The Miscreants fit right in.
For their fourth performance, “The Miscreants Run Out of Ideas,” last weekend and next, Brouilette wanted to “roast Broadway.” Although there were parody songs in all three previous Miscreant roasts, he decided to make this show a complete musical tribute.
Influenced by the Michael Frayn farce “Noises Off,” the play is set behind the scenes of a big show. Actors wear loose pre-show garb and try to focus on their upcoming performance while fighting hangovers from the previous night of drunken debauchery. The show is reminiscent of the early years of Mick Rapier’s Annoyance Theater troupe in the 1980s — except that the delighted actors are 30 years older and very pleased with themselves at being terribly naughty.
Broadway hits such as “Surry with the Fringe on Top,” from Oklahoma, become “Sorry that the Fringe is Crap.” The Sound of Music takes a skewy turn when actresses sing “Clearly we have a problem with Tequila.” And Bob Lindley, the only professional actor in the cast, brings the house down with a twisted image of Paul Robeson, turned hardened wino on the banks of the Mississippi, singing “Oh, my Liver.”
Fellow Forest Parker Alan Vuchichevich plays a thickly-accented disgruntled immigrant theater janitor who insults the cast in a Fiddler on the Roof spoof.
“Adventures in stupidity and craziness,” is how Lindley characterized the show.
“On par with Mrs. Richardson’s eighth-grade class,” said Shelby Bower.
Parody songs come naturally to Brouilette. He grew up in River Forest, where his father, also named Alan, ran a video production company in Chicago and was president of River Forest Youth Baseball. Alan the elder was constantly making up new words for old songs.
“I told dad after the show, ‘Your fingerprints are all over this performance,'” Alan (the younger) said on opening night, Aug. 29.
In fact, Alan Sr. himself is parodied in the show, as portrayed by Oak Park’s Gail Vijuk. A Gilbert-and-Sullivan-loving Alan Sr. complains about the show’s lack of class to the tune of “Castle on a Cloud,” from Les Miz.
Alan the playwright makes a cameo appearance with a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Tit Willow” from the Mikado that’s, well, titillating — in a Beavis-and-Butthead kind of way.
His performing is especially daring, he points out, because he is almost completely deaf and wears two hearing aids.
“Without the aids, everything sounds muffled and mumbled, like I’m wearing two or three ski hats,” Brouilette said. “Sure, I can’t hear the songs, but let’s just do it anyway and hope it works out.”
“I was a huge pain in the ass to our marvelous accompanist [Amy Pickering], who kept asking about things like what ‘key’ people were going to sing in,” he joked.
“I don’t know what a key is and I couldn’t hear the difference in them if I did.”
Actress Bower, who works as a UX app designer in real life but grew up in England watching plays on the Strand in London, said the release of performing the shows helps her in real life as an Oak Park mother of two boys.
“There are so many things needed to learn how to be persuasive, and this show gives them all to you,” she said. “If you can make ’em laugh, you can basically sell anything.”
The League of Miscreants will perform at the Gift Theater, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. on Friday, Sept. 6 and Sunday, Sept. 8. See www.chicagofringe.org for more information.