by Phillip Andrew Bennett Low • July 5, 2008 • Reviewing improv is a strange thing. While in any kind of live performance, it’s the case that the performance I see one night isn’t going to the performance you see another, in improv that’s carried to an extreme — even the broad outlines may vary widely. Without the security of a unifying text, it’s easily possible that the same show might be side-splitting one night and horrifically, jaw-droppingly bad the next. So there’s already an element of absurdity in trying to pick apart any given performance, figure out what makes it tick — by the time you’ve achieved any kind of meaningful realization, it’s gone forever. It’s the blessing — and curse — of the form.
I have to admit, this one was pretty hit-and-miss for me: while both members of the team are strong performers in their own right — Jen Scott in particular is an excellent physical comic — they don’t really seem to have a strong chemistry, a strong rhythm, a strong back-and-forth *together* — many of the sketches consisted of awkward pauses in between the back-and-forth, possibly intended for comic effect, that really just didn’t feel much other than awkward.
The other piece on the bill had me consistently laughing — bent over holding my sides laughing — and it’s worth considering why, especially since both group’s sketches had about the same hit-to-miss ratio — plenty of this group’s pieces were pretty lame, too, went nowhere, fizzled out. But I was laughing, because the underlying joke of the show was so strong — that of a trio of socially awkward, relentlessly cheerful, subtly disturbed improv performers.
Seeing these two groups paired together was kind of an interesting opening for me, because it really reinforced my sense that improv’s all about the singer, not the song — the latter piece worked so well because the underlying characters, and relationships, informed what they were doing, enough so that the actual material was almost irrelevant. Again, not to dismiss the first group — not bad performers by any stretch of the imagination, but one that hadn’t yet found that underlying mechanism.
At one point, an audience plant stood up and berated the performers — claiming that she’d paid to be entertained, paid to see an improv festival, and that it was really lame to watch two writers clumsily riff their way through a powerpoint presentation. Having a character bring that up was funny, but didn’t really make it any less annoying.
I have to confess, I’m not a huge Onion fan — every now and again there’s a headline that makes me burst out laughing, but for the most part I find it tediously formulaic. This show consisted mainly of two writers, reading Onion headlines to us off of a projection. Aside from the fact that, yeah, that’s a pretty lame cop-out of a performance — the Onion works in small doses. It’s the kind of thing you pick up, flip through, laugh, throw away, pick up next week. Having to sit and have essentially the same joke thrown at you, over and over again, for an hour, really, really, really pounds home just how formulaic it is.
The ending of the performance fared somewhat better — a number of improv performers join the writers and try to teach them how to perform, the running joke of which is that they’re really fucking bad at improv. Which is a good joke, and a funny one — but like the rest of the Onion schtick, it’s a hard joke to sustain. Especially when you end up being more interested in the improv performers than the actual stars of the show.
Phillip Andrew Bennett Low is a playwright and poet, storyteller and mime, theatre critic and libertarian activist, who lurks ominously in the desert wilds of St. Louis Park, feasting upon the hygienically-prepared flesh of the once-living. His main claim to fame is probably as co-founder of the Rockstar Storytellers, and as founder/producer of Maximum Verbosity, a garage-band-like theatre troupe that is in a state of constantly re-defining itself.