Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Nothing from Something

Theatre Review: Something from Nothing
written and performed by Caleb Manci, Megan Green, Aaron Kozbial, Carrie Bain, Aaron Rueter and Lauren Q. Hearter
Directed by Bryan Cohen
The Improv as Theatre Initiative
at The Apollo Studio

Something from Nothing is about seven months in the life of a Harold Team at ImprovOlympics in the mid-1980's. The Harold is a creation of Del Close's that helped define longform improvisation as we know it today.

As someone who has taken on studying comedy from since I was a kid, I appreciate it when improvisers take an interest in the roots of improvisation. So, when Bryan Cohen started to put this production together and I heard he had been knocking on the right doors to interview people about the time period he was focusing on, I had hope.

Let's just get this out of the way right now, this play is a mess.

So much of a mess, that I don't even know how to start this review.

Well, let's go with the old stand-by...

Good news first.

The good news is that the women in this show thankfully steal the show every moment they're on stage. Megan Green, Carrie Bain and Lauren Q. Hearter have brilliantly realized their characters and when all else fails on stage they can be relied upon to at least wring a chuckle or two out of whatever contrived situation is going on at the time. These ladies really do take the stage, give us characters they and the audience can believe in, and have perfect comic timing. One of the best moments is when Megan Green asks out another improviser as if she were checking off a To Do list with an underlying vulnerability that's both sweet and funny.

I also liked that the play, appropriately developed through improvisation by the actors, wasn't a straight-up history lesson. The play is presented from the viewpoint of the members a Harold team. One guy, Aaron Kozbial, has been left in the dust by his previous team who all got hired into The Second City's Touring Company. He auditioned, too, and didn't get hired. He has a touching monologue early on questioning why he's here and if he's on the right path. Something all improvisers go through, especially those who don't get cast by Second City.

Most improv teams, including Second City companies, are very unusual in that the people on the team tend to be put together, through the randomness of class enrollment or through an audition process. The people on the team didn't choose each other. There's a certain "casting your fates to the winds" involved when joining a team.

Having the play be about the life of an improv team is an interesting idea. I have seen people's lives transformed through improvisation. People bond, people grow, people become more self-expressive. People can be unrecognizable from their first class to who they are by their last class. It can be mind blowing.

This play doesn't really show us any of that.

Now, the bad news.

For one, it's too frickin' long. The first act was an hour and a half and left the audience on a weird, awkward note at the end of act one with a couple of improvisers on a very quiet date. It didn't leave us with any reason to come back from the intermission. And when the audience came back from intermission, it didn't really give us much reason to want to stay. There's very little story development. I didn't know where this train was heading and I didn't care after awhile. The only way I knew for sure the play was over, is that the actors stood in a line and bowed. The 8pm play let out at 10:40pm. I know, because, at times, my watch became more interesting than the play.

I'm really trying hard not to be a dick, here. But if you're going to do a play about improvisation, use some of the things you've learned from improvisation.

Things like...

- Show,Don't Tell - for a play about improv, there sure is a lot of sitting around talking, punctuated by occasional bursts of standing around talking.

- Share Your Voice - The Apollo Studio is a tiny space and I was only in the second row. I could barely hear the guys most of the time.

- Heighten - Not a lot going on in this department. There are things that happen. There are bouts of hook ups, break ups, unemployment, and even homelessness. But none of them build on one another or lead to anything big.

- Stage Picture - This is really Directing 101, here, folks. There were several scenes in cars and restaurants where actors literally sat upstage of other actors and couldn't be seen.

- Transformation - Characters change circumstances and wardrobe, but no character seems much different at the end than they were at the beginning.

If you're going to set your play in 1985, immerse yourself in it beyond clothes and cultural references.
Substitute one of Del's disciples for the offstage improv coach and this play could have taken place today. The play seems to have lost track of its original intentions to shed light on a historical period in improv. There no longer seems to be much of a reason to set it in 1985.

And this is picky - very picky - but I'm a stickler for this kind of thing, so indulge me. In 1985, it's very unlikely someone would have a video of Star Wars in their home. Unless it was a bootleg, which is conceivable. But they definitely wouldn't refer to it as the "original" Star Wars. Maybe, the "first" Star Wars, but I don't think anyone called it the original until either the redone version or the latest trilogy.

I really wanted to like this show. The people all seem very nice and I'm sure they have the best intentions. But the script needs to be severely overhauled and the guys need to not let their 80's wardrobe do all their acting.