Improv comedy at the Schorr ebbs and flows

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

The Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, now in its sixth season, is “the first performance venue of the Goodwill Theatre Performing Arts Complex & Professional Training Academy. Goodwill Theatre is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing quality arts and entertainment programming to the community.”

That is the description in promotional materials and on the Goodwill website, and anyone who has been there can attest to that. Consider the interactive production of Les Miserables there not too long ago, a performance few who saw it will soon forget.

But depending on what you expect to see, the Firehouse Stage’s comedy shows will either have you cracking up or wondering what the heck is going on up there.

Now, granted, I’ve only been to one of their Comedy Club nights, and it happened to be the most recent one, this past Friday (April 25), when the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), a touring improv company of four from New York City, brought its long-form improvisation show to the Schorr on Willow Street in Johnson City. The actors for this show were John Frusciante, John Timothy, Joel Weill and Jackie Jennings. Improv companies tend to switch out personnel periodically, and this one offers workshops if one is lucky enough to get in and if you don’t mind the commute to New York.

Everyone is familiar with improv in one form or another, due in part to the popularity of the TV show Whose Line is it, Anyway or, on a smaller scale, from the pleasure of seeing one or two local groups.  John Carey’s local company, The Puzzled Players, opened Friday evening’s improv with about 15 minutes of rapid-fire comedy.

But UCB’s “long form” is particularly challenging for the performers. This extended format starts with an interview of someone in the audience, and some very personal questions are asked by one or all of the actors, who must listen very closely so they can “write” in their heads and perform what they just heard, moments later, on the fly.

The young man in the audience who took the bait last Friday may have second-guessed  some of his answers later, or at least hoped his employer was not within earshot or likely to hear about it. But he was an excellent sport, and seemed to enjoy the ribbing he took for some of his answers. Cornering him in the parking lot later, I got him to admit that, yes, he had indeed cut the heads off of four of his backyard chickens. Don’t ask.

Once the “interview” with the victim, er, willing participant, was over, the fun began. In two short acts, and by rapidly trading roles and premises, the actors interpreted what they just learned on an almost empty stage, with just a few chairs that they whipped around to resemble the front seat of a car, a couple of armchairs or whatever was called for.

If you, as an audience member, were listening, you would have heard a lot of what was discussed at the beginning, regardless of how minute a reference it may have been. If all went well, which in this case it did, everything got tied up neatly at the end.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your particular taste in humor, these things have the potential to devolve into something that might only appeal to the baser parts of our nature. However, even I, who has been told to lighten up, had to laugh at Timothy, who transformed himself into a 90-year-old woman who still had her “groove.”

“Mama wants a daddy,” she (he) cried, while seducing a young sailor. Now that created a slightly skin-crawling effect, but that’s what made it so funny. What is funnier than a visceral cringe, or what I like to call, the “ewww factor”?

Now, the bad thing, and sometimes the good thing, about improv, is that nobody will EVER see the same performance twice. It’s based on spur-of-th- moment inspiration for the actors, and the accessibility of the “game,” which is what each skit is called.  I learned that from Mitch Tiffany, who has worked with the Puzzled Players for seven of the company’s nearly 12 years of performing comedy improv.  He and Carey, the company’s founder, are both very much at ease in the medium.

I had asked Tiffany to explain to me the variables that make for great (or not so great) comic improv. According to him, success depends on: A) the game, B) the players, C) the suggestions, D) the house and E) the venue. I think they hit all five at the nearly packed theater.

I admit, I enjoyed putting Tiffany and his lovely acting partner (Jenna Koger) into a funny location by shouting out “Wal-Mart” for their sketch, but they handled it beautifully. The sweet young thing (Koger) had the pleasure of telling the older guy (Tiffany) that she was carrying his baby, and they made that about as funny as such a thing would allow. The process they used for this game is called “quick change,” and here’s how, Tiffany says, it works:

“Start the scene, and the host says, ‘Change.’ The actor changes the last thing he said and then goes off in another direction. Funny when you have a pile of changes on top of each other.” And, believe me, it was.

Others who performed Friday with The Puzzled Players included Joe Falank and Dave Adams. When those two, plus Carey and Tiffany did a blues riff, using just one word tossed out by the audience, the result was hilarious. Well, it was about the IRS!  That’s pretty funny, right? I can’t think of a better topic for the blues.

The next comedy show is NYC Ladies of Laughter Stand-Up, coming to the theater at 7 p.m. Friday, May 9. Tickets are $15 ($12 for students and senior citizens).  Call the box office at 772-2404, or go online at goodwilltheatre.net.

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