Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker
Thirteen national and local groups, 55 performers in all, presented Improv in one-hour slots in two venues over two nights (5 to 11 p.m.), July 20-21, hosted by Florida Studio Theatre. Daytimes also featured related workshops centered on learning different types of Improv as well as improving preparation and presentation. Rebecca Hopkins, FST Managing Director, was the Founding Festival Director. The Festival was capped by an all-participant free Improv in the Keating, followed by a party at Maximo’s, catered by Nancy’s BBQ, on Sarasota’s Main Street. As for the individual slots…
FST Improv (Sarasota)
Sketches based on Improv suggestions reigned. After working out a made-up story about an audience member, an art teacher who’d moved to Sarasota from Albany, NY, the group turned to presenting an Emotional Genre Roller Coaster. Material involved different styles of film, TV shows, directors, and characters from Shakespearian to zombies. Darryl Knapp made a very good one of the latter. A conversation with every word beginning with an m or a p challenged. An interview with Christine Alexander doing extremely active translating for the hearing impaired ended the quick-paced series of sketches that put the local group up with the best Festival performers.
Just the Funny (Miami)
Best opening: a man behind a couple seated…where?…working into a hot session until the man cries out: “Do you mind? We’re in the middle of ….“ Big surprise! The group, well monitored by Carlos Rivera, acted out their arguments about the kind of Improv best for a Festival…real Improv, not sketches or stand-up. A restaurant scene then led to a sketch about sausages, followed by a discussion of grocery bills in the style of a Shakespearian play. (No one used iambic pentameter, though.) A cute amusement park horror ride preceded terrible prophecies. Finally, two audience volunteers guided a bride and groom at a wedding reciting their homemade vows. This sketch just wasn’t so funny, as the words didn’t give much impetus to the gestures that were supposed to be manipulated by the volunteers.
This is the one group I missed because of a booking change that made one choose between two shows, neither of which would be repeated. Improv Boston claims an ever-evolving form. The participants take a suggestion for a first scene and then deconstruct every element from lines to positioning to physicality, etc. Sometimes they use music. Artistic Director Will Luera has also been Artistic Associate of the Chicago Improv Festival.
The Third Thought (Tampa)
Dedicated to long-form Improv, The Third Thought took on the idea of a trip into San Francisco on tour with a Wiener Mobile. Chris Friday became driver because “It takes a big wheel to drive a big weiner.“ That set the tone, and obviously the plot would involve a pig (which got the most laughs), a Piggly Wiggly, an invasion of the home of Nancy Pelosi, a shooting, and a golden weiner. Its best comedy came from varied jokes about beef, pork, slaughterhouses. Political references had little effect.
Dad’s Garage (Atlanta)
A theatre company that offers comedy Improv with traditional theater, Dad’s Garage is literally and actually central in Atlanta and in continuous play. Here, improvised signature forms include a soap opera, a competition-type TheatreSports team play, and a Japanese-style game show. A musical version, called Dad’s Garage Rockola, builds scenes on songs that an audience chooses as if on a juke box at a show’s beginning. At FST, the group emphasized short scenes. For example, in an art studio, Amber Nash actually painted Z Gillespie, who always wanted to be art. There’s a perversion of a Superman rescue and not very fast service at a fast food place. Rueben Medina impulsed a Hispanic-flavored gag as a guy being flirted with, and toward the end he did a lot of gagging, which was a good, if gross, way to end the set. Dad’s Garage’s strength was logic; incidents weren’t just haphazzard.
The Hitmen (Chicago)
Improv proceeded from the suggestion of a stairwell, and it was pretty hard going with that one, until the improvised characters left a six-storey building and got out on the street. Gang humor. A shift of place to an army recruiting station and a shooting there, leading to depiction of a future with later generation versions of President Kennedy, Joe Biden, a scandal involving the wife of one, a memorial to WWIV, and an assignment to go off to see The Wizard. Movement was fast but eventually far from that stairwell. The pace helped keep up interest. Brendan Hannigan, Thiago Lima, Colin Espinales, and Justin Drogos worked as a distinctly homogenous team.
Vintage Whine (Sarasota)
An assured Senior Team, Vintage Whine takes suggestions and twists them into performance. George Pochos was the male among leader Fae Beloff, assertive Marie Kropp, droll Lynn Means, Southern charmer Susan Morin, stylish Nancy Rand, and outspoken Paula Morissey. Their fine skits exploited pet peeves, questioning foreigners and translating their answers (well-timed), a debate over the value of roundabouts, suspicions of infidelity, and a case of a couple’s minds going blank and their having to have audience members help them. Due to extenuating circumstances, this team had its time cut short, and we were all entitled to whine about that.
Lazy Fairy Improv Troupe (Sarasota)
With many of the same performers as FST Improv, Lazy Fairy can be relied on for laughs. For the Festival, the troupe did a long-form play, “Meet the Family,“ conveying the suggested general mood of malaise among Gothic rednecks. Darryl Knapp captured the spirit as a sprawling family patriarch leading the setting up of obstacles to confused Joey Panek, who just tries to pick up his date. Added interaction with flirty Angel Parker, goofy evangelistic Christine Alexander, and childish Catey Brannan involves a Big Prayer Requirement that’s more raw than religious. This grim but mostly clever piece was followed by a scene showing a place to go on the weekend. Darryl was a stitch as Snooty the Manatee at the Aquarium in Bradenton.
An all-female Musical Improv group, accompanied by versatile Eric Bair (if often a bit too loud) on piano, made up song, lyrics, and story following the suggested subject of peanut butter. Nothing that followed bested the opening song for cleverness: “You think you’re so smooth but I know you’re a little nutty.“ Erin Goldsmith, Sacey Smith, Jenna Steege, and Katie Yore displayed temperaments as different as their physical features—fanciful, realistic, sexy, couldn’t-care-less, needful. Yet they played in as coordinated a fashion as their black and white outfits. Most of their talk was about men, fat and food, exercise and auditioning. A man behind me laughed so loudly and so continuously that I missed much of the humorous dialogue and lyrics, though a pratfall or two and Erin sneaking rolls from a patron at a table near the stage seemed to be humorous enough. This one struck me as too long to do too little.
Jester Theater Company (Orlando)
The fun began at the theater door with Baliff Benson (Jay Hopkins, also Director) collecting from some of those waiting specific opinions to be placed in sealed envelopes for use in the Trial that would be held inside (under Hopkins next as Judge Mintday). Jester Theater Company, an all-comedy organization, revived its original creation Near-Sighted Justice, created in 1996. In addition to the sealed improvised opinions, the Trial was for a defendant (Tom Cook) from the audience. (Info he gave about himself was used subsequently.) Tom was accused of (suggested) panhandling, which was taken to mean actually handling pans in an inappropriate manner…in a Jewish temple…and so on. Witnesses to the deed and for the defendant’s character were all played by Mike Carr, a hoot becoming as different as a Jewish police officer citing his grandmother, a French entomologist, and a boss at a Cracker Barrel . The Trial also involved a love affair between Gemma Fearn, defender, and Chance Gardner, a whiz at making up crime details as prosecuter. This inventive, beautifully acted and staged comedy, in my opinion, topped Festival offerings. Diana Hopkins was Stage Manager.
Available Cupholders (Austin)
Four men and a gal (Kaci Beeler, who played two women with almost the same name) had fun improvising a one-act play happening in Alaska at Greg’s Plant Service. Its owner (Ace Manning, morose) is about to lose to a member of the Alaskan Mafia (Bill Stern, threatening) for not being able to meet his rent. Greg’s friend (harried Michael Joplin) tries to help with a scheme involving marijuana. Jeremy Sweetlamb, Director, also tries to help Greg and the gal in a rather confusing sequence that takes place in an Ice Lounge. The moral of the play: Don’t fool with the Alaska Mafia! Sum-up: more plot than laughs, but the players worked hard to keep up audience interest.
SAK Comedy Lab (Orlando)
Mike Carr (playing a second time and happily received) helped set off a stream of comic bits in which Chris Dinger and Greg Yates often acted as a team. One of the funniest short sets of the Festival involved an interview about (suggested) glassblowing to which the latter guys responded as Siamese twins in improvised unison! SAK indulged in musical love songs about (suggested) dolphins and staged part of a Spanish soap opera. A final act employed a lot of physical humor, as it involved characters who weren’t comfortable talking. After two days of Improv, many of the performers and audience could sympathize with them.