Spectators root for the improv actor -- but they cover their eyes, too. As with tightrope walkers, we thrill to the best performances while secretly hoping that we might witness a spectacular downfall.
Triumphs of comic timing, fortunately, greatly outnumber the crash-and-burn skits in Unexpected Productions' Halloween-themed improvisation show, Give Me Something Good To Eat, playing on Friday nights only through Oct. 27.
You know these Unexpected players intend to deliver visceral humor when a glance at the program reveals this warning: "When we ask for a suggestion to base a scene on, raise your hand cautiously, for it may be cut off. You have been warned."
This sense of comic creepiness extends to the evening's first impressions. An alley off Monroe leads to the Blue Door Theatre, a funky red-brick space where even the sound-and-lights people are in costume and the sound of nearby trains -- passing really, really nearby -- only increases our feeling that we're all participating in some daring stuff here, deep in the urban core. They packed 'em in on Friday night, an appreciative and eclectic audience including both energetic teens and aging Boomers.
An early bit entitled, "The Naked Truth" features Mark Robbins, the troupe's lead writer and director, emerging from a tacky glow-in-the-dark skeleton suit to deliver a self-deprecating, very funny monologue about how these Unexpected folks do improv simply because they aren't very good actors. They work without a script because, well, they can't write. This kind of shtick enlists the audience on the troupe's side: You laugh with us, they seem to say, and we won't retaliate with Don Rickles-style put-downs.
And these are four user-friendly improv actors. Jason Frederick ranges from a defiant teen slacker in one bit to "Pumpkin Boy" in another; he's marvelous at maintaining a serious demeanor while surrounded by lunacy. Jeremy Richards does a good Rod Serling imitation, and he's a hoot as the "Apathetic Punchliner," greeting insanely frenetic humor with indifference. Richards may have been at his best in a spontaneous Edgar Allan Poe riff that managed to wink at "The Raven," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and the writer's face-down-in-the-gutter death, all inside of two minutes. Lawra Gosselin-Harris stars in a scene she wrote about a cooking show featuring a vegetarian vampire. While this bit was too extended, like those failed one-joke skits on Saturday Night Live, Gosselin-Harris nevertheless excels at those too-cheerful Avon Lady Republican housefrau kind of roles.
The 90-minute show had some dead spots: All improvisation is a grab bag of hits and misses. Audience members who had seen Robbins earlier as a wacky mad-professor type with a bad toupee might have been surprised to hear how serious and self-critical the troupe leader was after the show. This skit went too long; in that other one, he continued, the literary allusions didn't do a good-enough job of appealing to the more knowing heads while avoiding being caviar to the general. (Are you nodding your own knowing head right now in self-delight, pleased to have caught that last allusion yourself? You may need some satirical actors to take you down a notch. "Your Worst Nightmare," for example, takes the mundane details of one audience member's day and stirs them into a freaky-funny brew.)
Robbins responds to the typical, "How can they be so quick-witted?" audience query when he talks about "walking backward into the future," an improv technique for keeping performers on track in the heat of all their spontaneity. These are intelligent, thoughtful farceurs. "Horrortorio," for example, a kind of a cappella freak-chant, required considerable verbal agility, while the Transylvanian Tag-Team Improv displayed the foursome at their most inventive. Robbins is rightfully proud of the impressive (and donated!) sound system that gives voice to the clever musical menu he created himself. "Bewitched," "Love Potion #9" and the "Monster Mash" are predictably here, but so is a droll send-up of Huey Lewis' "Heart of Rock 'n' Roll."
Right in our unsuspecting midst, Unexpected Productions is delivering a Friday-night product that is better than most of the stand-up and improv material you can catch on high-numbered cable channels in the bleary hours. When Robbins discusses the theory of improv and reveals his rigorous standards for keeping a scene moving, you know these people take their comedy seriously. If you're overly clever in shouting suggestions from the cheap seats, you just might have your pretensions skewered. You have been warned.
& & & lt;i & Give Me Something Good to Eat continues at the Blue Door Theatre, 122 S. Monroe, Friday, Oct. 20 and Oct. 27 at 8 pm. Tickets: $5. Call: 747-7045. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &