Cardiff Giant Stage Co.

at the Roxy

An honest, humble title, Comedy Sideshow–and accurate. As big-top fare it’s no great shakes, but as an ancillary act on the Midway of Mirth it’s more than OK.

The Cardiff Giant Stage Co. says it “lives on the border between ensemble comedy and experimental theater.” They’ve crossed that border several times in their scripted shows (The Rack, Theater of Funny, and The Mercy Ripper). Much less ambitious, Sideshow is in effect the north-side version of Avant-Garfielde, the ad-lib comedy these eight yucksters have created weekly for the last three years at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park.

With the exception of one written scene (a consciously hokey commercial that suggests that the Roxy’s chili can raise the dead), Sideshow is an hour of improvisation based on audience suggestions. As usual, it’s only as good as the games played, but Cardiff Giant’s improv techniques are among the more intriguing I’ve sat through. They get support from Francine Rabin’s backup piano; a battery of wigs, hats, and props; and–perhaps the asset most likely to be underestimated–director Hiram Bigelow’s ability to kill the lights just when enough has been enough.

Some strategies, like “Fill in the Blanks,” make the audience amuse themselves; some trust that the actors’ amusement will trickle down to the crowd. Most offer both sides equal opportunity. In “Steal the Focus,” two dueling duos try to segue smoothly from one pickup cue to another, a kind of comic Ping-Pong match. The “Alphabet Game” consists of 26 exchanges, each beginning with a letter in alphabetical order; the trick is to concentrate and keep building the sketch’s craziness without forgetting what letter’s next. (On the night I was there, the players made it too easy on themselves by going slow. You cant be careful with comedy.) A sort of pseudodocumentary, “Kaleidoscope” takes a generic event–here, “Sally gets a second cat”–and describes it through rapid-fire testimony from “witnesses” (their roles are given them by the audience)–Sally, the second cat, a neighbor’s dog, etc. Deftly staying in character(s), the troupe nicely punched the silly setup into some off-the-wall territory.

A few games survive on the theory that if they go on long enough, they must hit pay dirt. Witness a series of jelly bean jokes: playing the last jelly bean in the coin dispenser, John Hildreth–the best rubber face in the troupe–waxed philosophic about how “we may be different colors but we all taste the same. Oh, some have a little more licorice flavor; what the heck, we’re all just sugar.” It ended with his jelly bean character screaming “Take me!”

In one clever, simple game the actors suddenly freeze in different mugged reactions to an improv narration–it’s interesting to watch so many variations on the same emotion. But the best bit emerged from a kind of tale tag, a group-produced narrative. The cue, “sand,” produced a neat little parable: Two nomadic caravans meet. One is transporting sand and desperate for water; the other is burdened with water jars and splashes the stuff around in a desert version of conspicuous consumption. Finally, knowing dumb when they meet it, the first caravan trade their sand for the second’s water, the water carriers too dense to realize that in the desert, sand is a buyer’s market. Maybe you had to be there, but it was the one skit with a clear beginning and end.

However good their games, the Cardiff folks should fight the temptation to make the byplay too realistic, too emotional. Sometimes they seem to be playing “How Did We Get Serious So Fast and How Do We Get Out of It?” They could also add more written material: Sideshow needn’t stand or fall on improv alone. Comics can’t stay brilliant and extemporaneous for long–it’s a hard edge to hone–and sometimes what’s exciting to improv comics is for audiences only a hit-or-miss proposition.

Nonetheless, the Giants’ games make for some pretty fertile joke territory–and their comic camaraderie may yet cultivate a bumper crop.