Louis Anthony Russo, who died recently, was the soul of the Oxymoron'Z and improvisational comedy in Phoenix.
Louis Anthony Russo, who died recently, was the soul of the Oxymoron'Z and improvisational comedy in Phoenix.

A Crying Good Time

I've been dodging invitations to see the Oxymoron'Z improvisational troupe for nearly a decade. The materials, faxed or sometimes mailed to me by the group's founder and guru, Louis Anthony Russo, promised "great big laughs" and "spontaneous fun." It sounded to me like quite the opposite, and year after year I set the invitation aside. I'm no big fan of improv, and watching a group of would-be comics impersonating rubber ducks and enacting zany car crashes sounded like a night spent in hell.

As it turned out, when I squeezed into one of the troupe's final performances last week, I was largely mistaken. Notified of the troupe's imminent demise, I wedged myself, along with 170 others, into the Star Theater, a tiny former storefront at Papago Plaza where the Oxymoron'Z group performs. Players in ugly, tie-dyed tee shirts (the Oxymoron'Z uniform) exchanged high-fives with patrons and performed impromptu dances on chairs, all the while collecting slips of paper from the preshow audience, who'd scribbled down phrases they wanted to see worked into that night's shenanigans.

I was, I knew, at the theatrical equivalent of a rave, with folks who think Henrik Ibsen is the guy with the big flower who recited poems on Laugh-In. Up on stage, 10 or so Oxymoron'Z (mostly men) introduced themselves in a routine that was already too cute for my taste. These are the folks you love to hate at cocktail parties, men who impersonate chickens, and women who tell knock-knock jokes. I anticipated a slew of weary one-liners and SNL-flavored caricatures. And while I wasn't disappointed, I was a little surprised at the spirit with which this shtick was delivered.


Oxymoron'Z Comedy Troupe

Star Theater, 7117 East McDowell in Scottsdale

Final performances are Friday, February 9, and Saturday, February 10. Call 480-423-0120.

Everyone I spoke to that night and over the next few days attributed that energy to Russo, who died unexpectedly just before Christmas of congenital heart failure. Russo was widely regarded as a comic genius and revered by his colleagues as a generous, kindhearted fellow -- not the sort of opinion one hears often in show-biz circles, no matter how small.

"Louis figured out your particular talent, honed your ability to use it, then invited you to take it up on stage," says Christopher Hyslop, the company's assistant producer. The hundreds of signed head shots that cover every wall of the Star Theater's interior are a testimony to Russo's talent for finding the actor within; each of them is inscribed with some variation on "You changed my life for the better . . ." When he wasn't teaching improv, Russo taught monologue, voice-over, and scene study classes; his celebrity clients included Mary "Bone Mama" McCann, reggae singer Walt Richardson, and former Scottsdale mayor Sam Campana. His post-holiday funeral was a mob scene of local personalities and actor types, there to pay tribute to the man who taught them to talk to a crowd or get laughs with just a smirk.

The Oxymoron'Z are closing up shop this weekend, after nearly a decade of yukking it up in public. The troupe first took the stage in 1991, after Russo organized a charity show for a friend with cancer. Industry locals were impressed and convinced Russo to start up an improv class for stage actors. He began by teaching comedy technique to the cast of the Arizona Renaissance Festival, where he played the Lord Mayor for 10 years (Russo retired from the dungeons-and-dragons fantasyland last year, because of failing health).

Russo's Wednesday night improv class spun out into the Oxymoron'Z, who first performed on a teeny stage in the back of a metaphysical bookstore in the early '90s. The troupe moved to larger digs a few years later and has been playing to packed houses every weekend since.

The program is little more than highly organized silliness, some of it quite funny. There's the routine where a pair of actors, one with his arms shoved through the sleeves of the other's shirt, force out a French chef routine (I laughed in spite of myself). Or the long, utterly baffling bit where three men pantomime the same dreary fairy tale, substituting gibberish for dialogue. (Huh?)

Although the entire program is supposedly spontaneous and audience-driven, some of the bits are clearly designed to show off the specific talents of several players. Thus, we're treated to bits from a woman who impersonates Joan Rivers, a guy who imitates sumo wrestlers, and a kid who spoofs interpretive dance routines. The audience eats up every routine, calculated or not. At its best, the Oxymoron'Z show is goofy fun; at its low point, it's like watching exercises from someone's comic interp class.

But there's little point in criticizing any of this. Improv is neither theater nor standup, and even when the Oxymoron'Z aren't particularly funny -- like when they kick into their interminable signature piece about the 168 guys who walk into a bar, etc. -- they provide a pleasant diversion. And in any case, the troupe will be history this time next week.

"The company really revolved around Louis," Hyslop says. "It's difficult to continue without him. He was not only the central figure in running the company, but his acting class was the reason we were all up there. He had this magical insight into what a performer could do, and that's not something that's easily replaced. Louis's technique died with him."


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