Rebecca Hopkins, Director
Florida Studio Theatre, Cabaret & Mainstage
1241 N. Palm Ave., 941-366-9000
July 15 through 16, 2011

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

A dozen shows employed 60 improvisers of comedy from 8 cities to fill one-hour slots over two days in as many Florida Studio Theatre venues. During the day between the fun-filled  evenings,  guest troupes offered workshops on subjects from Beginning  Improv to Creating the Group Machine. As the Sarasota theatre that introduced improvisation to the area and first began  hosting national groups, FST offered its own homegrown adult troupe and its Kids Komedy Club to kick off each day's proceedings. Here's a rundown, in order of appearance, on the top 10 audience draws:

FST Improv (Sarasota)
The home team scored creating a "train" run on improvised words and phrases suggested by personal info gleaned from a guy of the audience. As a Coast Guard member from Mobile,  he inspired pianist Jim Prosser playing "Sweet Home Alabama"  to back his adventures. A short set about emotions felt while visiting Mote Marine Laboratory was played in various styles, such as a film directed by Hitchcock, a detective thriller, a Shakespearian play. Heartiest of players Darryl Knapp got involved in a poem about a foreign visitor and sunblock. Wiry Christine Alexander  gave a party but had to guess in charade-like manner  the identity of the invitees. Everyone had a ball emoting over newly installed downtown parking meters. Verdict:  Smooth, imaginative, with real variety, it got the Festival off to a good start.

Just the Funny (Miami)

Having arrived only 25 minutes beforehand, unnerved by a traffic hold-up, the group's lack of comic and physical warm-up showed in its series of short Hideaway narratives. In most sets Carlos Rivera was chief animator, and generally, he, Clay Cartland, and David Del Rosario outshone the female members and a seemingly phlegmatic Johnny Cabrera.  A scene of a funny gay breakup in the 1980s morphed into an even funnier one in the '90s, though. A driving test with a supposed angel  (really a devil) over the shoulder of the would-be driver came  up to speed. Basically, set pieces were better, not great but better, throughout than improvised ones.

Hawk and Wayne (Tampa)
Gavin Hawk and Ricky Wayne had the immediate advantage of looking funny. A skit about plantains evolved from a suggestion of "bananas" and allowed the duet to spin Jamaican jokes. A driving  test skit appeared once more, this time featuring an overbearing examiner.  "Debt ceiling" suggested a homeowner's call to have his house's popcorn ceiling  renovated. The situation produced a number of funny one-liners (e.g., the contractor's "I'll rip out the popcorn and put in some nice asbestos."). In a skit on "crying" Hawk and Wayne made the audience do the opposite much of the time.

Improv Boston
Will Luera acted some but seemed to be mainly the director of Patrick Parhiala and Deana Tolliver's extended set based on a Sky Dive. Subplots that resulted from deconstruction of that suggestion consisted of a guy pressuring a gal for sex, a statue coming alive, and a Simon LeGree villain  who ties up a girl  to await an oncoming train (with excellent musical accompaniment).  In a jump scene, the three wondered if they'd meet a Zeppelin, then spiraled into Space Piloting. In quick spurts appeared a robot, a dance instructor, a five-year-old, an entertainer on a cruise ship, and a crying wife. Although there were sometimes disjointed leaps instead of transitional steps, Improv Boston proved to know how to tell a story, if not a compelling one.

Dad's Garage (Atlanta)
Oozing experience  from the get-go, Dad's Garage used as its format an Improv Psychiatry Seminar. Conducted by Dr. Bob (Dan Triandiflou) in white lab coat, the session delved into "problems" suggested by the audience.  A beginning  device  meant to help get healing along was psychiatric analysis poetry. For instance, Amber Nash played a woman whose husband always wants to recite nursery rhymes during sex. This led poetically (but nonsensically, of course) to a problem that "could be worse-bad nail beds on his hands" and Rene Dellefont and Matt Horgan going  places, from drugstore to Chinatown, for a cure.  Things and ideas not good for the husband's mental health somehow ended up in travel to Pidgeon Forge and the wife facing death. More problems involved a bad neighbor and a yo-yo, a Mexican soap opera, and an audience  member becoming a friend of Mickey Mouse. At the end, Dr. Bob straightened everything out with an explanation in psychobabble. With never a dull moment, Dad's Garage  shone bright, bright, bright.

Lazy Fairy Improv (Sarasota)
An offshoot of FST Improv, Lazy Fairy consists of a few of the same players and an experienced actor like Joey Panek as well as musician Bobby Brader. They alternated short and long scenes, really taking off with imitating a foreign film (two dialoguing in back, two miming in front) about audience-suggested Voluptuous Baseball. With audience volunteers as a sister and brother, the improvisers became mannequins during an argument about a cookie. (Strangely, it worked.) The Coast Guard audience guy from the day before came on again with details of his life around which Lazy Fairy fashioned a funny skit about an affair with a subordinate that somehow involved cockroaches. No bugs in this one, nor in an interview featuring marshmallows. Angel  Parker, Catey Brannan, and Christine Alexander  emerged as major female festival performers overall.

Hello Laser (New York City)
After a brief exploration of possible humor from being  homeless in Sarasota (panhandling, but only accepting big bucks and soliciting for sunblock for camping  on the beaches), the subject of beggars and oil led to 50 excruciating  minutes of implicit pleas and explicit drilling for laughs. Alan Fessenden did his (sometimes frenetic) best to carry his seemingly clueless three colleagues in a format the group calls The Snapshot. Its idea is to travel on avenues opened up by a single frozen moment. For many moments, the improvisers needed to better project their voices. Two could best be heard when moving through the audience, but the reasons for doing so were weak, especially begging   or calling for Mommy. There was even a run up to the mezzanine. Hard to believe Hello Laser is a big city team that claims a continual run in a central venue! I heard people leaving and imitating  that TV commercial response to a barbecue sauce not from barbecue land but rather from "N-e-w York C-i-t-y!?!" They took the words and the spirit behind them, as the saying goes,  right out of my mouth.

Dear Aunt Gertrude (Tampa)
Darryl Knapp appeared again , giving  this troupe (Larry Bukovey, Crystal Haralambou, Amy Huebschman, Brad Taylor) a good start. Switching situations, places, actions worked well using a collegiate main theme. Act & Switch had two co-workers doing what the title says. Four Squares dictated that participants show Obsession, Frustration, Compulsion, Constipation honing in on a subject. Cleverly, the group of five pulled off a mini-drama  inventing lines of words that all began with "J' or "G" alternately. With a stunning blonde from the audience, a game of musical chairs was played-and she won! A challenge  to create a "dirty action" ended, after some suspenseful joshing around, with a garage  cleanup.  Good clean  (really) fun.

SAK Comedy Lab (Orlando)
SAK--which boasts alumni in mainstream TV shows from "SNL" to "30 Rock"-- played with the ease that comes from going on five nights a week in their Central Florida venue. With music director Chris Leavy on piano, David Charles, Jay Hopkins, and Richard Paul spun a mini-musical from the suggested  title "Polka Dot" complete with  "Too Many Dots" as its best song. A second turn had a set about a professor going back and forth, whenever a bell rang, between English and jibberish. Effective short skits included a TV interview, a scene in the style of Shakespeare in which every end of line word must start the next line, a set entirely of  running lines that each contain a  subject the audience suggests. These were wonderfully inventive.  A request for a song about something the suggester doesn't like turned out to be an authentic-sounding "Canine Blues."

Available Cupholders (Austin)
The seemingly intrepid Texans proposed to create a play about two people related in some way. Challenge:  bingo players. As a start, the actors wore alarms (set by audience members) on arm bands. Whenever each went off, whoever wore it was to revert to Shakespearian-type language.  (What apparently the Texans thought of as Shakespearian was a lot of "ths" as verb endings, because I heard hardly any lines in iambic pentameter or rhyme.) Though the characters of a bingo parlor owner and a worker were introduced, improvised rivals over the owner's daughter  came  to the fore. There was a cemetery scene and another involving underage drinking of alcohol before getting back to a bingo game  where only two old people showed up. Granted there were some comical jokes about bingo balls, the skit meandered from its theme. A number of nifty metaphors did not quite make up for a weak conclusion. Kaci Beeler, Jeremy Lamb, Ace Manning, and Bill Stern worked well together, nevertheless. The group lived up to its name by being available for workshops during the week that followed the Festival, culminating in a two night, next weekend gig in the FST Goldstein Cabaret.

Rebecca Hopkins deserves applause for organizing the Festival so well and introducing all the participating groups. The FST technical staff aided in every way. 

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