- Co-Ed Prison Sluts
Mick Napier wanted to see a clown fight a drag queen. That’s it. He had no music, no script, and a cast with a grand total of two shows under its collective belt, the second of which was a critical and commercial disaster. His theatre wasn’t even sure of its name yet and on the verge of collapse. The surprising result: the longest running musical in the history of Chicago. For a generation of comics and improvisers, Co-Ed Prison Sluts redefined what could be done onstage. The distinct brand of anarchic satirical comedy heavily influenced Chicago improvisation and consequently contemporary American comedy. From April 1988 through June 2000, The Annoyance Theatre’s Co-Ed Prison Sluts played every weekend to packed houses that became addicted to the company’s subversive themes, filthy language, and catchy songs.
In celebration of their twentieth anniversary, The Annoyance Theatre remounted Co-Ed Prison Sluts as part of its 2008–09 season. The musical skips merrily and incongruously through the worlds of sexual abuse, bestiality, incest, necrophilia, and more. A precursor to brash and edgy comedy like South Park, Urinetown, and Avenue Q, Co-Ed Prison Sluts presented a brand of humor unfamiliar to mainstream audiences. While the show undoubtedly doesn’t shock our jaded sensibilities today quite like it did twenty years ago, it is still as fun and naughty as ever. From the musical’s Brechtian songs to the raw language and outright offensiveness, Co-Ed Prison Sluts is a prime example of the power of improvisational theatre and catapulted The Annoyance Theatre to prominence.
The show follows the prison’s newest inmate, the naïve ingénue Alice (Colleen Murray), a self-described “happy masochist,” as she learns from her fellow inmates the life lessons prison has to offer, including the most important of all: fear the Clown. Among her new friends are Dame Toulouse (the marvelous Ellen Stoneking, who also premiered the role), a classically trained actress on the edge of sanity; Henry (played with subtle childlike innocence by George McAuliffe—Thomas Whittington also plays the role), a mass murderer with a taste for human flesh; and Skeeter (James Asmus), a twelve-year-old boy who apparently is in prison due to some sort of bureaucratic error. The inmates are helped along the way by Dr. Bellows (Scott Goldstein), a psychiatrist with a penchant for hypnosis and high heels.
As the impending showdown with the dreaded Clown looms, Alice and Henry develop a rather unexpectedly tender relationship. Surprisingly, rather than turning into a fraternity sketch, Co-Ed Prison Sluts begins to resemble a Brecht/Weill musical. The creators mesh the vulgar and abominable lyrics with an upbeat and bouncy music that results in the show’s trademark subversion. Alice happily sings her horrifying story of abuse: “My mother was a prostitute / Made me do coke / It was a hoot . . . / Had very little time to play / ‘Cause Daddy raped me every day.” This dissonance also spawned perhaps the most unquotable song in Chicago musical theatre history, the audience sing-along favorite, “Sh*t, M*ther-F*cker,” a George Carlinesque tour through the prison vernacular Alice must learn in order to survive.
The language, crudeness, and downright offensiveness of the piece, however, never overwhelm. The upbeat music by Faith Soloway, combined with a cast dedicated to portraying human beings rather than one-dimensional obscenity machines out for a cheap laugh, actually make the piece [End Page 483]
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rather touching. Derived from improvisation, there is an overarching care given to each character that keeps it from falling into coarse B-level material. The subject matter is used to surprise rather than shock, drawing from the company’s improvisational philosophy. The raw approach emphasizes the immediacy of every word put onstage, heightening The Annoyance’s theory that if a performer can surprise her or himself, then surely the...