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An animal that looks like a hot dog with buck teeth and a tail. A rodent that acts like a termite. A queen that bears all the babies. These are just a few things that make naked mole rats among the most fascinating animals in the world.

-- St. Louis Zoo press release

RATED X: The members of the Brand X Comedy Troupe are channeling a bit of the spirit of the Little Rascals. They find a space, they throw a show.

Lately that's meant working the boards in a small, perhaps unlikely place: the "Little Theatre" of St. John's Episcopal Church, 3664 Arsenal, near Grand. The site offers them what they need -- namely, a stage, some tables and chairs and a regular venue to call home. Little else is offered. The utilitarian pink walls are simply those of a church annex, no adornment added. Same with the oversized kitchen, the bulletin boards, even the clock that's stopped for perpetuity at 12:47. Curtains? Who needs 'em? Swanky lobby? Save it for the burbs!

It's an unlikely venue in that the troupe's material is oftentimes quite blue. Randy. Ribald. Lusty. Hair-raisingly frank. Delightfully saucy. Filled with references to things profane, sensual and, sure enough, religious. ("Yes, we're called Brand X for a reason," says co-director Christopher Quain. "It gets kinda racy sometimes.")

It's a likely venue in that local resident Dale Cannon has promoted variety shows at the church, and playwright Jerrold Rabushka has hosted several independent plays there. Currently Brand X is alternating weekends with Team Improv; Cannon calls the setup the "16th City Comedy Club."

Over the years, more than two dozen folks have cycled through the group, some not even managing to stay around long enough to do a public show. Doug Golden, a co-director, now claims the longest continuing tenure of the six-person troupe. "There's the time commitment, or they just need to move on," he says. "Or, sometimes, we just give them the boot."

Two weekends back, the group debuted in a new form. Mainstays Golden, Quain and Dan Gordon were joined by newcomers Cindy Benson, Elizabeth Lonigro and Mark Archambeault, a high-schooler who was looking for "an improv group to add to his resume." How cheeky! (Though young, he definitely held his own.) Some of the performers have been around a bit; others haven't.

The backgrounds of the Brand X troupe, in fact, couldn't be more diverse. Most have some theater training, others only a hint of that. In real life, one's "a junkman," another works in the greeting-card business and still another's in real estate. The common elements are around, too, like the six hours of rehearsal a week and the desire to see how far sketch comedy and improv can fly in a conservative town.

"St. Louis is a tough town," says Quain. "Things do seem to be growing ever so slightly."

The key, then, might be patience. The last time the Brand X stepped into the public sphere, they played to crowds of modest size. On Friday, that meant 16 paid admissions; on Saturday, a smaller house of just four. That group certainly made its presence felt, though. Because the actors ask for numerous suggestions from the audience for their improv routines, the whims of the paid customers play out onstage, immediately. On Saturday, just about every bit they shouted out involved sex, in some odd form or another.

"I like a good sex joke as much as the next guy," says Golden, though he suggests that too much of anything is not a good thing.

The language and scenes, then, can swing into some zones that even the troupe will shake their collective head about later -- particularly, let's say, when ethnic or race-based humor is touched upon.

"We were just talking about that the other day," Golden says. "In rehearsal, we've talked about blaxploitation, when someone yells that out. It's based in exaggeration already, so you end up running with it. It's like the Supreme Court defining pornography. I know we've crossed the line when I see it. Broadly speaking, in comedy there's not a lot of room for sensitivity or political correctness.

"I like a good mix," sums up Golden. "I don't mind low humor."
That said, Brand X wouldn't mind stretching out on other types of material. Certainly the group's got the skills to take things any number of ways. Partly it'll be a matter of the new version of Brand X sorting out new characters and situations. The base for a real growth curve is there: Quain's absolutely hilarious in just about every role, and Golden and Gordon have a nice chemistry, working particularly well as straight men and foils. Archambeault's got a loud, rowdy touch. Benson and Lonigro provide some interesting new twists, though the guys still take the easy out of referring to their "great asses" every few minutes.

Those tried-and-true moments are necessary: Filling 90 minutes of improv is a tough act. Though the actors do add sketch comedy regularly, it's the improv that often connects the crowd directly, and with some nice results. Whether playing volleyball with a severed head or lined up as a demented Mickey Mouse Club, the members of Brand X approach shows with energy and vitality, even on those nights when the cast outnumbers the crowd.

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