Pat Flaherty and David Wooten in The Clouds Genesius Guild's season-ender opens with a visual gag so wonderfully surprising that I wouldn't dream of describing it, and closes with a slapstick chase so wonderfully goofy that I couldn't describe it if I wanted to.

That's right, folks, it's time for Lincoln Park's annual Don Wooten burlesque, in which the Guild founder takes a classical Greek comedy - this time it's Aristophanes' The Clouds - and stuffs it with so many pop-culture references, area-culture references, jokes, puns, asides, non sequiturs, and even musical numbers that not even its original author could conceivably recognize it. (Actually, Aristophanes himself shows up here in the personage of Bryan Woods, and he doesn't recognize it.) With its witty self-awareness and winking self-deprecation, the experience is oftentimes like a Friars Club Roast of Genesius Guild itself, minus the profanity. But if you happen to be one of the national bees in Wooten's bonnet, don't think you're gonna get off easy.

It'll only take a few minutes to gauge the man's political leanings, what with the Halliburton gag, the quick John McCain razzing, and The Clouds' Strepsiades (the superb, invaluable Pat Flaherty) snarling, "I guess I'm going to have to get Presidential, and take the law into my own hands!" (Barack Obama's name is never uttered... although Hillary Clinton's is.) But big government gets less of a workout here than it has in the past, and considering Aristophanes' theme, this makes sense. Among other things, The Clouds is a lampoon on modern-education practices, and fittingly, Wooten focuses his satiric energies less on national politics than on the national dumbing down of American culture.

Reality TV gets a spanking, as does YouTube, and the failings of our education system are handily addressed when a telemarketing instructor (the radiant, energetic Grace Pheiffer) has difficulty getting a dim-witted student (Niki Adkins) to answer a call with a simple "hello." (She forgets the "o.") Yet Wooten is such a natural entertainer that his beefs don't come off as harangues. He may bemoan stupidity, but he also knows that actors hamming it up as idiots can be great fun for an audience, and happily, The Clouds' director, Peggy Hanske, and her performers know it, too.

ensemble members in The Clouds Edmund Dean and Neil Friberg - dressed, in a fabulous Guild in-joke, in Ellen Dixon's twin-servant costumes from The Comedy of Errors - play vacuous versions of Plato and Aristotle with wide, open-mouthed grins and delirious cackles. (They suggest South Park's animated Terrance and Phillip without the flatulence.) David Wooten portrays Strepsiades' slacker son, Pheidippides, as a zonked frat boy already planning his next hangover. And Josh Anderson is riotously dense as Stupidities; we're told that the character's name is Greek for "Adam Sandler," but Anderson actually plays him as Keanu Reeves auditioning for Napoleon Dynamite, and the sequence wherein this dufus demonstrates his Hooked on Phonics skills by spelling "fish" g-h-o-t-i is the funniest in the production. (Ironically, it might also be the smartest, as the kid's logic turns out to be pretty sound.)

Happy, silly performances pop up all throughout The Clouds. Earl Strupp, with his devastating dryness, delivers deadpan throwaways with perfectly timed aplomb; Woods' Aristophanes, with his penchant for adding an extra syllable to every haughty utterance ("clouds" becomes "clouds-uh"), is a supercilious hoot; Rae Mary's Socrates earns laughs with her Guild-centric one-liners ("Where is the play being executed?" "You couldn't have picked a better word for it... ."); and Eric Lohmeier and John Kiwala are marvelous scene-stealers as a pair of level-headed stagehands who could've been pulled directly from the Kabuki Plumber & Pipefitters Union.

The Clouds runs an intermission-less 75 minutes, and while I'm always on board with shows that clock in at under 90, is it ungrateful to say that this one lasts about 15 minutes too long? Probably, but as much as I enjoy Wooten's song parodies, there seem to be too many of them this time around. Faith Hardacre, boasting a beautiful soprano and a plucky comic spirit, does a lovely job with her satiric "No Child Left Behind" number. Yet while Scott Tunnicliff's "Subpoena" (to the tune of The Mikado's "Willow, Tit-Willow") is clever, three verses are a bit much, and we're also given riffs on "Be a Clown" and The Sound of Music's "So Long, Farewell" and "Do-Re-Mi," plus a round of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

Personally, I would've saved a few of the musical offerings for next summer, but then again, fewer numbers might've meant less stage time for this production's winning troupe of ballerina clouds, played by Hardacre, Lynn Anderson, Kate Farence, Claira Hart, Dorothy Hoskins, Abby Pheiffer, and Anna Tunnicliff. Speaking in Greek-chorus unison and performing delightful, waterless Esther Williams routines, this septet provides continual pleasure, much as The Clouds itself does. Introducing Saturday's Guild show, executive director Doug Tschopp explained that Aristophanes' original piece "was entered in a contest with two other comedies, and it came in third." Had Wooten's Clouds debuted in ancient Greece, it might've scored significantly higher than bronze.


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