Death by Laughter
Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen Prepare for Prime Time
Two clean-cut lads stumble onto a brightly lit stage in their pajamas. They look out at the packed audience, then glance nervously at each other. After several moments of awkward silence, it becomes clear that they have no idea what they're doing there. It's like a bad dream, except funnier because it's happening to someone else.
Then one of them speaks. Maybe the line makes some sliver of sense. More likely it's just inspired gibberish.
Suddenly all hell breaks loose. The two men start singing, grimacing and then morphing into different characters at light speed—a horse, an old lady, an undertaker named Leopold, a cowboy who rides side saddle, dinosaurs, Desert Face Sam, a singing deer, Mr. X, Mr. lower case t, Johnny Self-Righteous, a Creature of the Night, Future Man, a young girl named Jennifer, Jennifer's dad, and, finally, two British brothers, both for some reason named Nigel. These hallucinogenic mutations might make you dizzy. If you weren't laughing so hard, you might scream for someone to let you off this psychotic merry-go-round.
You, my delirious friend, have just been sabotaged.
Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez have been playing their sick little theatrical joke on audiences all over the world for six years now. The joke—and trust me, it's a good one—is called Sabotage. They're in the middle of a four-week run at the yet-
Later this summer, they'll tour this comedic weirdness around the globe to places like Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Germany and the Czech Republic. With the appearance of this retrospective show, we here at the Alibi thought now might be a good time to examine the roots of Sabotage and the peculiar cult-like following these two goofball saboteurs have developed over the last five years.
The boys first began working together as teenagers, when both of them made it onto a high school comedy improv troupe. "Shenoah had a trihock at the time," Chavez explains. A trihock is a variation on the famous hairdo, the mohawk. In this case, three bands of hair, instead of just one, streak across an otherwise close-shaven scalp from front to back, much like the stripes on a skunk.
"I think we only had a single performance in that troupe," says Allen. "It was at the Officer's Wives Club on Kirtland Airforce Base."
Thankfully, their promising collaboration didn't end there. They went on to perform in several high school plays together. After they graduated, a mish-mash of local, national and international influences helped cultivate the tiny mustard seed that eventually blossomed into full-blown Sabotage.
As soon as Allen graduated, he became a member of the Tricklock Company, then called the Riverside Repertory Company, a local theatrical institution that for the last decade has produced and developed some of the best thespian talent in the city. (Chavez also became a member of Tricklock a few years ago.)
Meanwhile, Chavez began studying astrophysics at UNM, but theater continued to exert a strong gravitational pull on him. He wrote six or seven comedic bits for the Dionysus Festival, the precursor to UNM's current annual Words Afire theater festival, in which students write, direct and perform every production in the line-up. During this period, Chavez worked intensively with UNM professor Digby Wolfe, the co-creator of the TV show "Laugh-In."
A few years later, Allen and Chavez began operating as a team again when they both became part of the professional Albuquerque-based improv troupe DAIDA. The troupe was inspired by the work of the legendary Viola Spolin, the inventor of Theater Games. These games, though initially designed for children, served as the foundation for all improvisational theater. Spolin, who is sometimes referred to as the American Grand Mother of Improv, influenced an entire generation of performers. Her son Paul Sills, for example, founded Chicago's famous Second City comedy company.
"DAIDA was great training," Chavez says. "We both learned a ton."
Incorporating Spolin's revolutionary ideas, DAIDA took suggestions from the audience at each show and built an entire performance around them. Needless to say, this style of theater required performers to think on their feet. The actors also needed to develop an intense rapport with each other to facilitate inventive and entertaining shows. In DAIDA, Chavez and Allen became their own little troupe within a troupe, accomplishing their greatest improvisational feats when working on stage together. Chavez remained in DAIDA for two years. Allen left after a year to study at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in northern California.
Over the years, both of them studied with countless other performers and directors from around the world. They also developed a relationship with each other that's given them an almost paranormal ability to intuit each other's motives and moods on stage.
In 1998, the boys began doing a series of comedy skits together at Tricklock's Reptilian Lounge, a late-night variety show that's hosted everything from a musician playing an electric cactus to sword swallowers, puppeteers, jugglers and even an evangelical prophet from Texas. Appreciative audience members are encouraged to support their favorite acts by hurling coins—preferably giant Eisenhower silver dollars—at Target Girl, an unfortunate lass who tears across the stage between performances with a helmet on her head and a target painted on her chest.
From its inception in 1995, the Lounge has instigated numerous bouts of drunken debauchery, public nudity and other socially unacceptable behavior. In other words, it served as the ideal environment to develop the kind of lunatic comedy style epitomized by Sabotage.
"The Reptilian Lounge was the birthplace of Sabotage," Chavez says. "In 1998, we started doing our skits there, and our shows grew out of that."
The first Sabotage skits were short-form hallucinogenic spy stories featuring a pair of British brothers, both named Nigel. From the beginning, the rowdy, often inebriated late-night Lounge crowds adored them, and they soon decided to develop the skits into full-blown shows.
In 1999, Chavez and Allen established Burning Cities New Works Company to design theatrical pieces aimed at broadening the spectrum of live comedy. Sabotage has since become, in their words, "the crown jewel" of the company.
"The way we developed the skits was very haphazard from the beginning ...," says Allen.
"... and it still is to this day," says Chavez, exhibiting the pair's alarming habit of finishing each other's sentences. "We're often writing and changing the show right up until the last minute before we go out on stage, and even then we never know how it's going to turn out."
Unlike the old DAIDA performances, Sabotage shows aren't purely improvisational, but they are improv based. Because of Allen and Chavez' intimate relationship with each other, the shows mostly grow out of them playing ideas off each other on the spur of the moment during rehearsals. Of course, when they do get up on stage, new material often pops out in front of the audience. Sabotage bits, in other words, typically blossom out of a spontaneous mutual creativity that relies on a profound subliminal link between the two performers. When I jokingly ask whether they've developed the sort of telepathy shared by evil twins, I'm surprised when they treat the question seriously.
"It is kind of freaky," Allen says, "the telepathy thing. But whether or not you want to call it telepathy or we're just capable of picking up on each other's subtle ticks, we rely on it on stage. We're pretty in tune with each other."
A Sabotage show always develops over the course of a tour. "At the beginning of a run," says Allen, "up to 20 percent of the show might be improvised, and it gets more and more refined as we go along. That's because so much of what really makes it come alive is the audience. I always say that Sabotage without an audience is like ballet without music."
"There's a school of thought," says Chavez, "that theater doesn't need an audience. I think that's a bunch of full-on crap."
One of the most fertile periods for the Sabotage boys to develop new material is during long car trips. Over the years as they've traveled around the continent putting on new shows everywhere from New York to Vancouver, they've spent an awful lot of time together on the road.
"We keep a notebook with us at all times," Allen says, "so when either of us does something funny, we can write it down. Much of Sabotage is based on hours and hours of bullshitting together in the car."
"Entire shows have been written in the car," Chavez says. "We can get so into it that when the trip is over, we'll get out and won't know how to deal with the world or other people because we've been locked in our own little universe for so long."
One of their greatest collaborative strengths seems to be their openness to each other, which can sometimes reach disturbing degrees. "At this point," Shenoah said, "there's nothing sacred between us any more."
"I feel like we can say anything to each other," Chavez says.
The main difficulty in writing about Sabotage is that it's almost impossible to explain to those who haven't already seen it. Over the years, as I've seen show after show, I've struggled with this problem over and over again. Looking back on some of my old reviews, I think I've mostly failed to pin down Sabotage's essence. Browsing through a binder of Sabotage press clippings from papers all over the country, I can at least console myself with the knowledge that I'm not the only one suffering from this problem.
Sabotage isn't exactly theater. It definitely isn't stand-up comedy. It isn't even a hybrid of the two. It's some new, inexplicable kind of comedy. I guess, in the end, the only thing you really need to know is that almost everyone who's seen it thinks it's freaking hilarious.
One thing I can say is that Sabotage shows don't really have plots. They are, however, always constructed of multiple seemingly unrelated story strands woven together in ways that you wouldn't think possible. This texture gives these chaotic shows some semblance of rational coherence.
"I feel like Sabotage does have an anchor," Allen says. "There are relationships between the characters and different pieces in the show. We're trying to achieve a plot without a plot. The shows always have a beginning, a middle and an end."
The Sabotage twins' main strengths are that they're committed to creating an entirely new kind of comedy, and they seem to have the astonishing skills to accomplish this lofty goal. The best thing about Sabotage is that it's much greater than the considerable sum of its two parts. Much of this is due to the fact that Allen and Chavez work on many outside projects. Working with other performers keeps their own collaboration fresh and exciting.
"Sabotage clearly is the most important thing to us in the world," Allen says, "but it's nice to be able to go off and do other projects, then come back and work together. Everything we do helps us in our work together."
Allen hopes to have a play he's written produced at the Tricklock Performance Space in spring of 2005. Meanwhile, Mark is working on his own one-man show, tentatively titled Space Man.
The pair have also started doing "secret comedy shows" at undisclosed locations. They did one in an Albuquerque warehouse and another in a two-bedroom suite in a hotel in British Columbia. Only ultra-cool, in-the-know hipsters are allowed to observe these cabalistic comedy rituals. (I, for example, have never been invited.) Chavez and Allen are very hush-hush about this secret project. "You can't reveal any details," hisses Allen, leaning across the table to grab my arm, digging his nails deep into my flesh.
The pair is more open about a planned cinematic version of Sabotage. "We've got a screenplay in the works," Chavez says, "for a short film that will include all the major Sabotage characters." Unlike their stripped down, largely prop-less stage show, the film version will have sets and costumes and everything else necessary to transport their baby from the stage to the screen. After that, they'd love to make a feature-length version.
It's a safe bet they'll be working together for a long time to come. As Allen and Chavez say in their recent promotional material, "Our teeth are sunk firmly into the ass of the future." As far as I can tell, these pitbulls won't be letting go anytime soon.
Two Sabotage performances will occur at the Q-Staff Performance Room:
Sabotage: Wide Awake (formerly known as Sabotage III), Friday, May 28, and Saturday, May 29, at 9 p.m.
Sabotage: In Fine Form, Friday, June 4, and Saturday, June 5, at 9 p.m.
Reservations are advisable. $15 general, $12 student/seniors. 301-4892.