It sounds like the premise of an especially horrific nightmare: You're on stage in front of at least 100 strangers. One of them yells out the phrase "Silly String in the Desert." And then the crowd, who all paid $15 to be entertained for the evening, expects you to use that phrase as the title of the completely improvised 30 minute musical you're about to perform for them.
Such was the case for 21 improv troupes at this weekend's Phoenix Improv Festival at Herberger Theater Center, which ran from Thursday to Saturday.
As a general rule, you don't go to to see improv to laugh your ass off constantly. You go because of the energy and spontaneity of seeing something unscripted or, as my viewing companion put it, "to see the trainwreck." Saturday night's performances had their moments of brilliance and moments that made audience members squirm with embarrassment for how horribly a bit failed.
Phoenix's only improvised musical comedy troupe, The Remainders, of the aforementioned "Silly String in the Desert," featured two main characters--who we quickly learn are old friends on a camping trip--in improvised scenes, interspersed with songs performed with the troupe's other members. The physical aspect of the setup was funny right off the bat: The two characters--played by the very large and very bald Ken Ferguson and the much shorter Mack Duncan (who is also one of the festival's founders)--played off of each other well, especially when we learn that the two never venture more than 300 feet from their car during the entire camping trip.
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"There could be anything out there," Ferguson says. "There could be wildebeests--"
"And there could be a girl scout troupe laughing at us right over there," Duncan interrupts.
I did laugh uncomfortably a few times, especially during a song about America that included the line, "I love this country/I love that you can buy an ice cream float for a bison."
Austin's Murphy performed traditional Chicago longform improv set--from an audience member's suggestion--in a doctor's office. The most consistently funny of the night's troupes, they set up nice bits about drug testing, slutty nurses and nerdy doctors.
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The best bit involved a performer receiving a forged medical school diploma: "Oooh, University of Phoenix...sounds elite!" Murphy was also a perfect example of how--with all due respect to Donny Osmond--one bad apple can spoil the bunch. Three of the four troupe members were on pointe while one basically sucked the funny off the stage every time she entered a scene.
I had high hopes for the local Light Rail Pirates, who described themselves as "the best kind of pirates--we promise not to take any of you hostage." Their name would lead one to believe that they were going to riff on Valley transportation. But alas, they performed a typical improv set, which was still pretty fun, but disappointing when you were expecting something fresh. They started out doing an uncomfortable office scene, but quickly developed funny bits on a man pretending to be homosexual so his wife would break up with him and the downside of rotary phones. One thing you could say for Light Rail Pirates: They rivaled the energy level of a class of Kindergarteners on crack.
When you think improv, typically you think Chicago, home to Second City and Improv Olympic and the training ground for comedians such as Tina Fey, Mike Meyers and Chris Farley. So again, I had high hopes for Windy City improv troupe Bare, a two-man group that ended up being just moderately funny. Profanity can be used to good effect in moderation, but too much of it signals laziness, and Bare relied on it just a little too much during their set. The best of the set? A throwaway bit with a wife asking her husband to take a picture of her next to a cactus. "It's Arizona," he answers exasperatedly. "There are cactuses everywhere."
By the end of the night, I was definitely improv-ed out, but it was nice to see Phoenix establish itself as a improvisation destination, and to see local players able to hang with the big dogs from the Midwest. And even during the cringe-worthy moments, nothing beats improv for sheer edge-of-your-seat "are they going to kick ass or are they going to crash and burn?" entertainment. Mostly, they kicked ass.