The Tomkat Project a new play that explores the arc of the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes celebrity saga from writer Brandon Ogborn leads the way for the growing movement in the Chicago improv and sketch scene, redefining boundaries between theatre, art, spectacle and comedy.
As other upstart Chicagoland collectives Kill All Comedy and Upstairs Gallery solidify their places in a renaissance of experimental comedy, The Tomkat Project stands out among crossover work. Aspiring audiences are clamoring for tickets to the show's second run that kicks off 8 p.m. on March 6, 2013 at the Playground Theater to return every Wednesday in March.
There's something to this trend according to Second City producer and Director of Talent, Beth Kligerman. "The Tomkat Project is striking a nerve as a theatrical comedy crossover. I've seen plenty of inventive Chicago shows," says Kligerman. "But this one is on its own wavelength. It has this amazing ensemble and story that's unnerving and comical at the same time. Others have found small success, but this performance may have just the right mix of mainstream pop culture, laugh-out-loud acting and clever presentation to tip the scale."
Described succinctly on its Facebook page The Tomkat Project is A play that transcends the tabloids to discover the truth behind the marriage of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and The Church of Scientology . Oh, and it's a comedy. Interspersed with imagined scenes from Ogborn's satirical mind, a lot of the laughs come from the artistic arrangement of real-life events and verbatim dialogue.
The story is familiar for most audiences who in this era of social media can't avoid tabloid news. Yet Ogborn takes the audience on a hilarious anthological journey by narrating the events from varied angles. Through a timeline of media coverage spanning 14 years (1998-2012) in two acts, the cast of seven actors, including Ogborn, enshroud you in the story that includes scenes from the famous Oprah couch-jumping moment, the details of Cruise's gay-rumor litigation to the transcontinental phone call that initiated the couple's divorce.
"I wrote the show I wanted to see. I wanted to do something I've never done. Something that no one else is doing. Something substantial," says Ogborn.
Tomkat cast-member Brianna Baker, presently in New York with her highly regarded solo show Bede, agrees. "I was initially drawn to Tomkat because I had never read anything like it, especially not in the comedy world in Chicago ." Coming off of recent solo work, she was looking for something other than improv. "But I wanted it to be off the beaten path a bit," she says. "I think everyone in the play was drawn to it because it is a way to stretch yourself as an artist. The result was something that was unheard of in the sketch comedy world, and something that we are all really proud of."
Tomkat also received praise from Chicago veteran director and teacher Matt Miller, who called it, "a wholly engaging show; intelligent, inventive, and consistently hilarious."
Co-proprieter of Upstairs Gallery Alex Honnet is also a fan and hosted the show's first run. "Putting up a show about one of the biggest celebrity couples feels like an attempt to get people in the door. It's just not the kind of thing we are interested in pursuing," said Honnet, whose underground performance venue is quickly becoming the valve for experimental Chicago comedy. "But this is Brandon Ogborn," Honnet continues. "He's not that kind of performer, or writer; and that he would write a play about this was puzzling. When I started reading the script, I knew this was not just a silly show lampooning famous people. This was a show that asked big questions. Also, it's funny. Really fucking funny." And these praises may owe something to the seeds of the project ultimately germinated by a theater vet experienced in growing an act.
Says Ogborn of the play's origins, "It started as an extended two-person sketch and turned into this behemoth of a play in a span of less than two weeks."
The project became a bona fide piece of theatre with the credentials of its director, UK transplant Elly Green. Bringing experience from Britain 's Royal National Theater and locally Stage Left Theatre
Company, Green added a new level of preparation to the project.
Combining Green's pedigree with Ogborn's comedy chops brings out a show Cruise and Holmes fans will enjoy. With more than seven years comedy writing, directing and acting Ogborn has a good feel for getting laughs, but not cheap ones. As a huge fan of Tom Cruise, it's important to him that audiences come away from The Tomkat Project with the idea they've seen both sides of the coin.
"I started writing this thinking – like most people – Cruise is the villain, Katie is the damsel and Scientology the evil overlord," he says. He realized the characters are easy targets and hopes the audience sees that too. "This performance isn't just about Tomkat. It's about how we as an audience feed on their lives," says Ogborn. "That doesn't mean we can't laugh our asses off about the whole thing."
Kligerman agrees with the assessment. "It's a fantastic chance to laugh and learn about this story we think we already know but have no idea," she says.
Baker seconds that notion. "For what it's worth, I actually like Tom Cruise more now than I did before the play started. Go figure."
The success the show would not be possible without the talented cast of seven actors who give humanity to the 54 characters they portray including Matt Lauer, Josh Hartnet, Scarlet Johansson and Scientology honcho David Miscavige. With four sold out shows at the Upstairs Gallery in Andersonville – all before opening night, a first for the venue – the same cast is slated to continue the second run: Julie Dahlinger, Kevin Knickerbocker, Walt Delaney, Brianna Baker, Micah Sterenberg and Allison Yolo.
"I saw Tomkat at Upstairs Gallery and was absolutely blown away," says Matt Barbara of the The Playground Theater. "Anyone with an interest in pop culture or celebrity will love this show. We had to bring this unique piece of art and comedy to our theater and to Chicago audiences."