In 1998, fate dealt Billy Bungeroth an interesting hand. Bungeroth was 19 and decided to take a break from his undergraduate studies at NYU. While visiting Chicago, he stumbled upon the Old Town Ale House, a neighborhood fixture and frequent hangout for Second City cast members. “I just happened to go over there because I knew it was from ’58 and I was a big Beat Generation fan,” Bungeroth says. “It was a Saturday night and I wanted to watch SNL and they wouldn’t turn up the volume and a guy said, ‘Why don’t you go next door and see the free set’ and then I just became obsessed.” Cut to a dozen years later: After directing the smash hit The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life at the Second City e.t.c. in 2010, Bungeroth is helming this week’s new South Side of Heaven, the 99th Mainstage revue, about accepting the hand you’re dealt.
Whether Bungeroth’s initial landing at the Second City was predetermined is debatable, but one thing is for sure: South Side of Heaven, a dark, emotionally charged assault on audience expectation, revels in the idea of destiny. “This is a show about how everything that’s happening is absolutely meant to happen,” says Bungeroth in March while sitting down to discuss the show’s progress toward opening.
When we speak, the eager ensemble—which includes newcomers Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent and Katie Rich alongside veterans Timothy Edward Mason, Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson—is about eight weeks into a process that has largely been informed by a tumultuous string of events. In January, Mary Scruggs, the head of the writing and education programs for the Second City Training Center, died suddenly. Several weeks later, longtime producer Joyce Sloane passed away just days after the theater shuttered its doors for the first time in years because of the February 1 blizzard.
It was a dark time at North and Wells, but it inspired the cast to go to edgy places normally reserved for its experimental sibling, the e.t.c. “There’s an expectation here,” says Bungeroth, acknowledging that the Mainstage’s constant nod to its esteemed alumni means audiences enter the theater with preconceived notions. “We’re aware of that and working very hard to set them up a little differently so we can do some of the stuff that we do next door.”
To that end, Bungeroth, a music and film devotee who also plays guitar with local soul band JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, sifted through old records and indie films and spent time in New York and California soaking up the latest trends. For Absolute Best, for example, Bungeroth brought e.t.c. musical director Jesse Case old rap albums including the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. This inspired an eclectic and cranked-up soundtrack that in turn inspired a fast-paced, whip-smart revue about how the perception of time is distorted by memory.
To ratchet up the dark themes in South Side, Bungeroth and company engaged in conversations about Brechtian theater, traded Beatles albums and listened to Fellini soundtracks. The result is a punch-drunk assault on the senses rife with discussions of mortality, race, disappointment, revenge and despair, tied together by the notion that what’s done is done. “In my eyes, the most interesting thing about fate, if you believe everything was meant to happen,” says Bungeroth, “is that you can go on during some of the worst things ever—whether we’re talking about the economy or something horrendous like some of the losses the cast suffered at the top of the process. If the audience is able to grasp some of that, that’s a triumph no doubt.”
South Side of Heaven plays Tuesdays through Sundays at the Second City.