Cardiff Giant

at Cabaret Voltaire

Cardiff Giant obviously love doing comedy improv, which is evident in the respectful way they approach their material. Performing improvisationally is deadly difficult, and most companies I’ve seen resort to easy sight gags or one-liners. The performers always seem bent on trying to be clever, and all I see is the effort.

The members of Cardiff Giant don’t try to be clever. They are clever. And smart. And on the whole, remarkably skilled actors. The humor in their work is drawn from the nearly impossible situations in which the highly polarized characters suddenly find themselves. Each performer has to think like an actor as well as a playwright–knowing when to lead, when to follow, and when to make a timely exit. Cardiff Giant sets itself a difficult agenda in Some Candy, so it’s not a laugh riot–but improv needn’t be funny to be good. Watching these performers work is wholly captivating, and when the laughs do come, they’re from the gut.

The eight performers each portray particular characters who are placed somewhere according to audience suggestions. While the characters are primarily predetermined before the evening begins, once in a while the master of ceremonies (Scott Hermes the night I attended) stops the action and asks the audience, “Have these two characters ever dated?” or “Which of these two writes poetry?” The actors then have to incorporate this new information without compromising the integrity of the characters we’ve already seen.

I was repeatedly amazed at how quickly the actors could take dreadful suggestions from the audience and turn them to their advantage. Asked for two locations, the audience gave them the top of the Eiffel Tower and the observatory on the Hancock Building. As any amateur playwright knows, two settings that provide exactly the same dynamics give you basically no place to go. As if to point out this fact, one of the actors (Bob Fisher) stood atop the Eiffel Tower during his first entrance, stared down for quite a while, then turned to the audience and quipped, “Well, some view. Gotta go.”

Fisher’s character, an effete poseur named Camelle, offered some of the best moments of the evening. In a later scene Camelle approaches the highly neurotic, inarticulate vegetarian Balsama (played with disturbing hilarity by Hannah Fowlie), who is flailing her hands around in front of her face in an imitation of Madonna. She asks Camelle, “Don’t you want to vogue?” To which he replies, without moving a muscle, “I am voguing.”

This scene worked well because these characters function as perfect foils for one another: Balsama always seems on the verge of frantic tears (she constantly asks the others if she’s acting “mean”), and Camelle is eternally unflappable. A similarly successful pairing occurred between Trent (Greg Kotis), a psychopathic wound spring of a burnout, and Marshall (Phil Lortie), a chronically overworked, desperately exhausted whiner. A “flashback” scene depicting their first date was perhaps the highlight of the evening. “I don’t have time to date your mind,” Marshall explained. “Maybe you could make some video works and I could watch.”

By and large, all of Cardiff Giant’s characters teeter on the brink of mania. From Laura T. Fisher’s vicious born-again Christian who constantly spits on others to Mark Ray Hollmann’s anything-but-coherent spiritualist who always keeps his index fingers pointing up, the characters seem bent on maintaining inner stability when explosions seem imminent. The actors do their best to appear normal–which shows that they have genuine sympathy for their characters–and thereby make themselves all the more charmingly bizarre. John Hildreth is the only actor who pushes his character a bit too far, making his deranged and howling gypsy Chester difficult to listen to.

The one area in their work that could be strengthened is scenic structure. True, they have to rely on audience suggestions of varying degrees of usefulness, but once a setup is established, they need to push themselves to invent what the scene is about. The actors often don’t come up with clear obstacles for their characters to address, leaving them stranded with little to do except talk about where they are or who they are. That talk is generally quite articulate and clever, but it doesn’t push the scene dramatically. Such stasis prevents the evening from gaining the momentum these talented artists could certainly provide. Still, Some Candy is only an hour long and the strengths demonstrated far outweigh the shortcomings.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.