Steven Miller

A Terrible Price for Whimsy

Sgt. Rigsby and His Amazing Silhouettes at Theatre Off Jackson

Through Dec 23.

Within the first few minutes of A Terrible Price for Whimsy, the Baby Jesus has been buggered to death in His manger by Randy Zebra—an exceedingly good sign of things to come. This shadow-puppet odyssey, which bounces from a murderous Mary Todd Lincoln to an evil gang straight out of an Encyclopedia Brown novel to a Tijuana donkey show, is fucking funny.

The story, by Scot Augustson, concerns a boy inventor named Roscoe who eats too many chocolate-tequila balls and rides his Timecycle to the very edge of reality, destroying history along the way. The action is performed by silhouettes in a large light box adorned like an early-century vaudeville set (cameo portraits, sepia tones) and narrated from a table off to the side by radio actors transplanted from the 1940s (bowties, slicked hair, horn-rimmed glasses). The style is charming, the material is smart and wicked, and the actors (Susanna Burney, Stephen Hando, Keri Healey, and Jonah Von Spreecken) make it fun, cavorting through the play like hopped-up children in the world's best playground.

There are a few soft patches in the first act when the story derails into not-so-interesting tangents. But, for the most part, Augustson's digressions are his strength. The cautionary films on moral rectitude, the commercial breaks, and the rise and fall of Chicken Jenny (a three-part series on a barnyard animal who, against all odds, becomes a famous singer and then a washed-up cocaine addict), are fantastic, mostly because they're delivered with the sincere, naive enthusiasm of an old-fashioned radio play. A Terrible Price for Whimsy passes contemporary comedy (think South Park and Sarah Silverman—lewd and vicious with a secret, distraught tenderness at its heart) through the kidneys of old-timey aesthetics. The result is funny. And bawdy. And wonderful. BRENDAN KILEY

The Cody Rivers Show: Tangle

Rendezvous Jewel Box Theater

Through Dec 23.

You know when you spend most of your life eating chocolate chips and watching ABC Family Channel original movies and crying (come on, sure you do), and then you drag yourself outside for one little night of theater and it turns out to be something so purely creative and wondrous that it's like getting a hug straight from the Baby Jesus? The Cody Rivers Show is like that—like a reassuring blast of weird, delightful brilliance. Like maybe humans aren't useless after all.

Saturday night's show coincided, lamentably, with "Santarchy," a heee-larious annual guerrilla march of sexy elves and Kringle-clad drunks (some in heee-larious afro wigs!), who packed the Rendezvous with their fuzzy red bodies and their deafening ho-ho-hos. Still, Cody Rivers cocreators Mike Mathieu and Andrew Connor forged ahead—the permeating hokey-jokey din illuminating, by contrast, the high-concept intricacy of this thing they've made.

This thing isn't sketch comedy exactly, but it's not standard theater, and it isn't funny so much as mesmerizing: a bizarre, impressively choreographed, breakneck montage of song, dance, puppetry, soliloquy, and oddly dramatic vignettes. Some lines are straight-ahead jokes: "No more 'that's gonna leave a mark,' no more 'tastes like chicken'... no more 'okay, I'll shut up now.'" Some speak volumes in a single sentence: "I thought it was funny at first, but I didn't know you could shovel so fast." And my favorite bit of dialogue: "Throw this bag of powder in my face." "What if it's poison?" "Exactly." Exactly! Cody Rivers is clever, it's excellent, and—praise the Baby Jesus (hugs!)—it's new.

Throw this bag of comedy in your face and be happy—before another MadTV marathon comes along and restores your faith in mediocrity. LINDY WEST

Are We Scared?

Open Circle Theater

Through Dec 16.

I don't dislike children. Their brains are scrambled from being squeezed through a vagina, so I treat them as I would treat a drunken adult and we usually get along fine. But there is nothing more grating to the ears and soul than the sound of children's voices raised in song. It's unfortunate that Open Circle chose kids' covers of moldies like "Help Me Rhonda" and—Christ's sake!—"Desperado" as the house music for their remount of Are We Scared? a series of vignettes adapted from the play-acting of preschoolers.

Regardless, I utterly loved Are We Scared? Five performers run all around the stage and, at one point, the entire theater (they were frightened by "a big hairy caterpillar") in a mixture of physical comedy; weird, rambling monologues; and musical interludes. Some instruments played: banjo, Darth Vader mask, fishing rod, mortar and pestle, Aboriginal bullroarer.

Credit goes all around: the simple, versatile set design; Matt Fontaine's direction (which turns a hilarious tantrum into a pitch-perfect musical number); but especially the performers. Only entirely committed actors can sell lines like, "I am a bright and tasty snack" and "It blowed up on fire because I put a fire on it," and keep summoning the boundless excitement that talking about dinosaurs—and there are a lot of dinosaurs—requires. John McKenna is particularly good, cheerily portraying everything from the sun to a guitar-playing jellyfish to an adult who puts the entire play in time-out. There are 90 billion ways Are We Scared? could've gone wrong, but it sidesteps every one with childlike obliviousness. PAUL CONSTANT