Not Too Sexy for Laughter
The Alternative Comedy Theater’s Big Sexy Weekend of Improv exposed some improv artists in top form.
published Sunday, June 3, 2012
All too often, I get dismissals of improvisational comedy shows with comments like: “Why in the world would you go see something that’s made up on the spot? No scripting, no practice, no sets, no nothing. I don’t want to watch someone working stuff out.”
Oh really? Never been to a sports game or jazz, blues or global music performance? Athletes and musicians train extensively so they have the skills to create in the moment. Almost every type of music and theater involves improvisation as a thousand little adjustments are made, refining the material and responding to the audience and performance permutations like dropped lines. Is art only the end result, or is it the process as well? Improv is all about the process.
There were moments in the opening two nights of the fourth annual Big Sexy Weekend of Improv that verbal jazzathletes were at work. Lots of chops, an impressive amount of variety in improv approaches, and in general it was a splendid display of associative thinking by very skillful folks. Monologue Jam and Artprov featured members from various ensembles, and performers sat in on each other’s sets frequently. Members of the guest BTK Band from New York City lent their improv swagger to several bits.
Local participants in Big Sexy arise mostly from the Alternative Comedy Theater, spearheaded by actor John Rawley. Like most established improv operations, they have a school that churns out a steady series of ensembles. The Extreme Improv Challenge, hosted at their regular Dyer Street Bar and their Plano satellite location, Café Bohemia, winnows them out.
Thursday, May 31:
This season’s winners of the Extreme Improv Challenge, who did a Thursday night set, proved to be a naturally quippy bunch. Missed the Ren fair favorites Motley Players III. Been too long since I’ve seen their energetic, embodied, men-in-tights comedy that spans from broad medieval humor to nuanced Renaissance parodies that delightfully mangle Shakespeare.
But it was good to see The Victims again, a house ensemble of the Alternative Comedy Theater. The group is electrified by actor Jeff Swearingen’s fearless willingness to do absolutely anything, while being stabilized by John Rawley’s talent at pulling a plot out of nothing. The Victims makes the rounds, appearing at Pocket Sandwich Shop and regional comedy festivals.
Friday , June 1:
Reviewing the Capitol Steps caused me to miss the Friday early offerings with Oklahoma’s One State Two State Red State Blue State and The Big O, as well as the rare Latino improv group, Shades of Brown, from Austin, and the Alternative Comedy Theater’s supergroup Persons of Interest.
Catching the last half of intriguing Austin-based iZARZAMORA! made me want to see more, lots more. These history brainiacs spin outlandish backstories relating an everyday modern object to some incident in ancient eras, both suggested by the audience. Friday night’s theme was the history of the squeegee and how it connected to the creation of the croissant, spanning from Medieval to modern. They call the technique The Device. iZARZAMORA! showcases the best use of a liberal arts degree ever!
Actor/writer/cartoonist Brad McEntire, who is always up to something, hosted the Monologue Jam. Each participant was given one word and three minutes to create a story. The format tapped into the innate human skill of storytelling. Jeff Swearingen embodied a defiant Peter Pan for his word, “self-reflection.” Peter Aguero of New York City’s BTK Band was given the word “exsanguinate,” meaning to drain of blood, and turned in a chilling monologue of a killer to his slowly dying victim. Cheerio!
The final offering of the night, Artprov, used a piece of artwork, rather than words, as fodder for creating improvisational comedy. While improv takes place, the artist creates a piece to the comic action on stage. A great concept, but did not fare as well. The whimsical artwork of creatures like fish lacked a psychological component capable of inspiring improv, which so revolves around relationships, though Jeff Swearingen mimics a fine fish.
Saturday, June 2:
The final night of the Big Sexy Weekend of Comedy got off to a strong start with a showcase of improvisational duos. An exceptionally nimble format compared to the usual improv troupes of a half-dozen members, the increased focus of duos taps into that exquisite sensitivity that many couples develop to each other’s mental and physical cues. The interplay can become seamless. Relationships created out of duo improv tend to be deeper, heading into dramedy territory.
C-4 of Oklahoma City had a fascinating format. Their improv scenes alternate with conversations that are real and true to bro-talk, with wild asides and ribbing, overlapping dialogue, and rapid-fire repartee that had a scat-like feel. Turning their chairs in a diagonal to the audience enhanced the intimate feel of overhearing a conversation. There were a few long rambling sections, but mostly stayed on track.
Their story of brothers, one successful, the other not so much, produced a great gag: “When life gives you lemons you…” and the reply “make a metaphor!”
Rachel and Dave are a duo representing ColdTowne Theater, one of Austin’s improv centers. The plot of their set made absolutely no sense—it started out as a couple at a Pinkberry in Guam under terrorist attack and somehow ended as a father-daughter in crisis, at least I think that’s what it was. Quickly paced with some guffaw-worthy lines, the driving force was Rachel’s continuing ability to get them both into wildly inappropriate situations.
FUN GRIP was a delightful mess of insanity. The duo of theatrical madman Brad McEntire and actor-shapeshifter Jeff Swearingen was consistently engaging in their tale of a father not too keen on a young man courting his daughter (played by Swearingen, of course), interwoven with a troubled werewolf (McIntire) in need of supervision, which allowed Swearingen free reign to comically torture his partner for a half-hour.
Saturday’s middle set showcased the Band Wreckers, a female troupe associated with Alternative Comedy Theater; Red Dirt Improv out of Oklahoma City; and Elevator Action, a troupe from ColdTowne Theater. Band Wreckers were at their best when engaged in physical exuberance and silly slapstick. Cracked up the audience every time. Band Wreckers and Red Dirt Improv never referenced the suggestions of hyperthyroidism and boogers given by the audience, but that’s kind of understandable. Though there were several bright and funny moments, the two-hour set dragged on, with no clear characters or plots from any troupe.
BTK Band, the guest stars from New York, raised the energy up several notches, not hard considering the lead, Peter Aguero, is a physical giant of a tattooed man with enough bluster and bravado to light Central Park. His foil was guitarist and Dallas native Rory David Scholl, who knew just how to provoke the big guy. Backed up by a bass player and hand drummer, they make up the core of the house band at the Moth, the city’s famed storytelling collective.
Plenty of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll talk sprinkled with aggression and done to a musical soundtrack is the BTK Band forte. A bloody tale of post-surgery coitus by Aguero was followed by a few rambling minutes about Orange the hobbit needing a banana. By the time BTK began mangling the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (blasphemy in some circles!), it was well past this reviewer’s bedtime and not even Aguero the Urban Ogre could keep her awake.
Throughout the event, co-producer Liz Robinson made a fun and enthusiastic emcee who, predictably, threw like a girl when it came to tossing out sponsor freebies. Broken beer bottles resulted and physical injury was a definite risk. After a brief discussion on the mound, er, stage, co-producer and Alternative Comedy Theater leader John Rawley came in to finish out the inning.
Dyer Street Bar has a tavern feel with wood paneling, dark chairs and crusty barkeep, plus a narrow outdoor courtyard. It has Crispin’s hard apple cider on tap! The improv happens in a side room separated by a curtain. The bar is at the far end of Dyer by the N. Central Expressway service road. Get on the Alternative Comedy Theater email list or Facebook page to keep up with their events at Dyer Street and other locations.