Zeitgeist Theater

at Improv Institute

Flanagan’s Wake, half as extravagant but just as entertaining as the popular interactive show Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding, might be described as “Paddy ‘n’ Fiona’s Funeral.”

Upon entering the theater (which is in no way dressed up to look like anything other than a theater) the audience understands it is entering the fictional town of Grapplin, County Sligo, which is mourning the death of the beloved and mysterious Flanagan–presumably ensconced in a rough coffin onstage. Ensemble members sporting tweed and broad Irish brogues roam the theater, establishing character while developing an easy rapport with the audience. As the performers weave a sort of demented Dylan Thomas picture of a small community, albeit Irish, not Welsh, they glean ideas from the audience (“How did you know poor old Flanagan?”) that they will later work into the plot.

The ensemble members are adept at drawing out the shy and capitalizing on the hammy in their audience, so that when the time comes to launch into a series of eulogies about the deceased, they have plenty of material to work from–and no compunctions about asking for help from specific individuals. Audience members are called upon to flesh out outlandish stories, join in improvised songs set to familiar Irish tunes, and break up fights that erupt when the will is read. On the night I attended, a fireman in the audience was compelled to administer CPR to a fainting Mother Flanagan (Paul Chapman), and a pretty young woman claiming to be Flanagan’s lover challenged Fiona Finn (the indomitable Patricia Musker), betrothed to the deceased for the last 30 years.

Zeitgeist, which is a new branch of the Improv Institute, includes many members of the parent company. Musker’s on-the-spot keening song is a true test of improvisational skill, which she passes hilariously, and Mark Czoske as Father FitzGerald trades quick words with any blasphemers in the audience. Of course, this is really a chance for audience members to play; the livelier they are, the better the show will be. Don’t tense up. It’s a late-night show, you’re in competent hands, and there’s plenty of beer available.


at the Improvisation

There is something to be said for limiting your improv to four-minute stretches, however. ComedySportz has been delivering a 90-minute show comprised of short sketches based on audience suggestions for eight years now, and it’s still going strong enough to move from its old home at the Congress Hotel to the Improvisation.

The performers are divided into two teams that compete against each other in a variety of familiar improvisational games. As in baseball, the game is accompanied by an organist, an announcer (who provides sound effects as well), and a referee. The competition between teams raises the stakes, the time limit keeps things moving–when something flops it’s simply abandoned–and a referee is something most improv could use. I am particularly fond of the “waffling” penalty; the ref blows his whistle to warn the players that the scene is not going anywhere. They have 15 seconds to get to the point.

On the night I attended ComedySportz, however, referee Kyle Kizzier never needed to call that penalty. Performers David Gaudet, Don Hall, Cassy Harlo, Robert Plourde, Rena Malin, Bill Chott, Kevin Colby, and Jason Meyer (another 25 performers are currently on the roster) sometimes flopped, never waffled, and often shone. Particularly well done was a game of “AM/FM”–in which the performers collaborate on a song about a given topic in a given style at the drop of a hint from a disc jockey–which yielded a convincing alternative rock group wailing about Michael Jordan and a rap group obsessed with Barry Manilow.

Quick thinkers all, the players keep what could be some routine games quirky and fresh, while the format keeps the show moving at a highly charged, gratifying pace.

In my review of Prop Theatre’s Mass Murder II, I messed up the name of director Kevin Hackett. And in my review of Off the Street Theatre’s Not So Epic Brecht I failed to credit Shelly Simon with the role of Ruth Berlau. Apologies to all concerned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Paul Chapman–Zeitgroup.