at the Wrigleyside


at the Wrigleyside

To refresh a memory or two, ImprovOlympia is the comedy complex that nine years ago, guided by improvisarios Del Close and Charna Halpern, invented the meta-game called the Harold, a wildly influential technique that has shaped the work of comedy troupes like Ed and Jazz Freddy. Continuing its comedy evolution, the organization is now offering a new Saturday-night show, 3 Mad Rituals.

And there’s a cunning method to their madness: the three improvisatory methods allow the six-member Family–ImprovOlympia’s house team–to spin out 90 minutes of comedy from a single audience suggestion: a line of poetry.

Played back-to-back and without intermission in what becomes a very grueling and focused comedy marathon, the three “rituals” are Deconstruction, the Movie, and the reliable Harold, which build slowly to a full head of steam. The first improv method sets up a scene with variations, based on the line of poetry, that can be looted later for laughs. Narrated like a film scenario, the Movie comes complete with imaginary camera angles, shooting sequences, and verbal special effects. The loosely structured long-form Harold turns its opening scene inside out to create three related scenes, but the idea is to wind up back at the original. As Close sees it, the perpetual-motion Harold, with its cascading spontaneity, reflects the workings of a “group mind.” To make it hum, a tight-knit team of yuksters must in effect chew the same funny bone.

If the games are highly structured, the result is instinct itself. But on this particular evening the poetic suggestion–William Carlos Williams’s “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens”–did not make a good springboard to comedy; fortunately the Deconstruction barely touched on it. Instead, the adept Family leapt into a crack-brained tale of two nutso brothers (Neil Flynn and Matt Besser) who force a dying horse to cart a church steeple out west, where they build a shrine where they can be worshiped (shades of David Koresh), allotting their worshipers four acres of land in return for unconditional adoration. But the brothers break up over doctrinal differences, and famine stalks the community.

Among other wild touches, the Family provided weird readings for the brothers’ narcissistic ceremonies. Among the adept performances in this Deconstruction was understudy Craig Cackowski’s sharp turn as a heretic with attitude (he filled in for Ian Roberts).

The wildest and most imaginative section, the Movie, was full of rapid mood changes and diverse camera angles, capturing the medium’s fluidity. It evolved into an epic saga of a naked nature lover (Besser pretending to be nude), a latter-day Saint Francis who wants to rescue a forest from mall developers. Enlisting the aid of assorted screeching fauna, he gathers an army of nudists who live with the land, not off it. A true team effort, this Movie built well, and unlike some maddening improv I’ve seen held more or less to a single story line. It also gave new meaning to the words “strip mall.”

True to form (which is somewhat formless), the Harold wove in and out of several scenes. A prop-laden history teacher (Flynn) who uses puppets to teach his class famous dates is attacked by an iconoclastic student (Miles Stroth) who just wants to get his facts straight. Predictable but hilarious were later bits, like a program of “Great Poetry Read by Morons” and an obscene, angry ghetto rap read by a white wimp. Before the Harold came full circle, back to the first tale of the religious brothers, the Family enacted a rapid-fire series suggested by the crowd–toothpaste, A Chorus Line, world peace, outer space.

These 90 minutes–which were mercifully free of TV or brand-name humor–flowed fast. The Family are a good mix of personalities: Besser is slyly antic, Flynn is unflappable, and Stroth has a hard-edged combativeness. Ali Farahnakian shows a penchant for loudmouths full of loopy seriousness, and Adam McKay gamely plays anything from a dying horse to a scampering monkey.

Special mention must go to Jeff Richmond, whose supple, quick-witted musical support could shift the mood on a dime.

Now in its tenth year, ImprovOlympia has expanded to an astonishing ten teams. Besides the crackerjack house team, the Family, there are Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, Mr. White, and Mr. Red (named for the killers in Reservoir Dogs), plus the Plum Dumplings, Veto Power, and the Lost Yetis. I happened to catch a showdown between the Plum Dumplings and Mr. Blonde; in the show’s frenetic 90 minutes, the teams once again proved by example a golden rule of improv–that comedy needs concentration: serious listening to audience suggestions and to promising leads from other players.

One good game they played is based on Jung’s theory that our dreams flow not from past trauma but from recent events. After an audience member–a language teacher at New Trier–described her day (students’ problems, a disagreement with her husband about gays in the military, the seniors’ slump), the eight Blondes acted out her personal nightmare, which teemed with students threatening to move in with her, language-lab dialogue, and a fascistic close-order military drill. Other well-honed games were Musical Option, in which a grungy scene in a subway was deftly transformed by audience hints into blues, pop ballad, and reggae takeoffs, and the venerable Freeze Tag, a sharp comedy discipline in which characters are replaceable but the scenes remain consistent.

Best were the Harolds. Mr. Blonde took its inspiration from the Spur Posse, the obnoxious California sex-for-points high school club, but the team dropped that to spoof xenophobia and pompous senators on C-Span. Plum Dumplings’ Harold revolved around childhood and having children, using role reversal in a detailed bit on, yes, male pregnancy. Clunkers and brand-name jokes aside, the evening was sharp and solid, refreshingly literate and as current as a fax.