“The Susan B. Anthony Makeover was poorly conceived.” In Second City’s producition of “I’ll Be Geneseeing You,” this is one of the many light-hearted jabs made at Rochester’s obsession with the city’s past or passing.
One familiar with Second City, the Chicago- and Toronto- based troupe, will know them for their reputation with improvisational theatre, and might not expect a cultural revue from them that touches on the heart of life in The Flower City. But anyone who sees “I’ll Be Geneseeing You” at Geva Theatre should expect nothing less. Certainly, those who have experienced improvisational theatre in the past will recognize at points some of the art’s old tricks such as long-form sketch or group story-building. These are not, however, the characteristics that define the work.
More akin to a variety show, “I’ll Be Geneseeing You” is a frivolous comedic tour of all the old stomping grounds that Rochesterians hold dear, complete with a musical number reflecting on our drunken devotion to garbage plates as well as another about our penchant for festivals in the summer and charity balls in the winter. And, true to Second City standards, the show includes audience prompts and participation to guide the actors through some more loosely scripted scenes that show off the cast’s improvisational talents.
What might strike some members of the audience is that the production is not so much focused on how outsiders see our city, but rather how we see ourselves. Drawing their research from individuals and institutions across Rochester, watching the work reveals that as over-the-top as the portrayals are, they aren’t all simple caricatures of Rochesterian habits and tastes.
In fact, at times the humor can be brutally candid, highlighting some of the social inconsistencies that plague us. While one scene focuses on the smug superiority and pride of parents whose children are involved in humanitarian projects in the third world, another scene is not above making a jibe at a perceived unconcern of the wealthier segment of the population with the state of Rochester’s impoverished public schools. The city itself is even personified as a precocious, but condescendingly egocentric, child.
The overall picture is of a people who have learned to enjoy themselves rain, shine or — more likely — snow, but who have also embraced some of the demons they should be fighting. All this wrapped in the unprepossessing mantle of a flippant and irreverent jest about life by the Genesee.
While this pointed commentary will leave most outsiders cold, there is more general content, but as the name suggests this is often obscured by the focus of the production. Still, for those who are new to the area, the customs, and especially the weather (as constant a joke in this show as it is to our citizens) there are aspects to “I’ll Be Geneseeing You” that even newest of inhabitants will understand. Tap dancing, singing (often with improvised lyrics) and rapid-fire one-liners give the show a vaudevillian feel in places and lend what cosmopolitanism the show can boast.
That may be due in part to the specificity of the subject. Unlike New York or Los Angeles, those coastal hubs of fashion that sell themselves to the world, Rochester seems to like selling itself to, well, itself. While much of the free world can indulge a jest about New York’s taxis or coffee shops or the deadlock of Los Angeles’ commuter culture, foreigners might be less inclined to indulge themselves in a laugh over the final exploits of Sam Patch or the spectacular rise and fall of the Fast Ferry.
Still, as long as it is in town, this production will be Second City’s way of reminding those devoted and quixotic Rochesterians that they are right to loudly applaud their city and themselves, just as long as they keep their tongues firmly in their cheeks.
“I’ll Be Geneseeing You” plays through Sunday, Feb. 6. More details can be found at http://www.gevatheatre.org/plays/secondcity.php.
John Weatherbee is an alumnus of
the class of 2008