Staged by the Bell

If you watched Saved by the Bell as a kid, you'll have a darn good time at this staged send-up

Arts Review

Staged by the Bell

United States Art Authority, through Nov. 22

Running time: 1 hr, 40 min

Saved by the Bell is a sitcom already steeped in nostalgia. Running in the early Nineties, its main characters are a squeaky clean mosaic of the high school world – jocks, nerds, the cool kids – that improbably hang out together despite their obvious differences. And even though the show deals with issues teens tackled in the Nineties, the overly idyllic polish of the Fifties glosses over the entire show.

So in 2009, in the age of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, in which high school's gotten "real," what do we do make of Saved by the Bell? If we're the Institution Theatre, we love it, live it, and exploit the heck out of it with Staged by the Bell.

The original run of Staged by the Bell started with "Jessie's Song," perhaps the most iconic episode in the series' run. In it, top student Jessie Spano gets hooked on caffeine pills. Her breakdown scene, intended to inspire fear and pity in impressionable kids' minds, is so overwrought with melodrama that it has inspired an array of parodies and T-shirts. It's this serious commitment to something so retrospectively cheesy that makes spoofing Saved by the Bell so logical.

Staged takes the original episode as its foundation but allows its improv-trained actors to deviate from the script. Canned jokes from the original text still exist, all the major plot points still occur, but the leeway allows for metatextual jokes and winks at the camera. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that Slater did not show his love for Zack by trying to repeatedly tap his balls. The show has since moved on from "Jessie's Song" to "The Zack Tapes" and plans to stage "The Prom" in November.

I should mention up front that I fall squarely in the target demographic for this show. My girlfriend, three years my junior, did not remember the My Buddy, Teddy Grahams, or New Kids on the Block commercials that were played during interludes. Memory plays a heavy part in nostalgia, and I remember every Bell episode, every commercial, every Saturday morning cartoon theme song.

Let me put it this way: If you knew and loved Saved by the Bell, you will have a darn good time at Staged by the Bell. Director Tom Booker and the cast play into the show's conceits with a wink and a smile. They make fun of all the right moments; they stay true to the original show; they live up those early Nineties. The more you know about what's being mocked, the more you'll enjoy it.

That said, the Institution Theatre strives to create an atmosphere that everyone can get into. The night kicked off with "The Game Show," which had three audience members test their knowledge of Saturday morning cartoon theme songs. Hosted by the funny and affable Ted Meredith, the preshow relied heavily on audience participation for its success. In fact, the entire show did, having more the feel of an improv show than a piece of theatre: The audience was encouraged to make canned responses to the original jokes, and the whole show had a casual, interactive feel to it.

If you remember the Max, if you know who always called whom a "preppie," if you've ever done a Zack Morris time out, then Staged by the Bell is right up your alley. If you don't, the show still offers a funny cast, warm atmosphere, and a heavy dose of early Nineties optimism. Trust me, it's radical.

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Staged by the Bell, Austin comedy, Institution Theatre, Saved by the Bell, Tom Booker, Ted Meredith

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