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SHEILA'S GIANT WALL OF PLOT TWISTS

Sheila

at Organic Theater Company Greenhouse

VISTAMAX

Live Bait Theater

LEPERS: SCENES OF DESIRE AND IMPOTENCE

Real Work, Inc.

at Strawdog Theatre Company

Once the dream (only partly realized) of improv visionaries like Paul Sills, David Shepherd, and Del Close, long-form improvisation has become as common as homegrown zucchini in late August. In fact, the form has become so commonplace that it's replaced the improv-based, Second City-style comedy revue as the show of choice for young improv troupes eager for recognition. Unfortunately it's already beginning to show signs of exhaustion.

Sheila and Vistamax are the latest entries in this crowded field. The better of the two is Sheila, the University of Chicago-spawned, Hyde Park-based troupe that took over at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap when Avant-Garfielde, distracted by its north-side success as Cardiff Giant, grew tired of the weekly improv grind. Using a format remarkably similar to Avant-Garfielde's--an hour-long revue of unrelated improv games--Sheila's five actors create a show that's every bit as funny and quick as anything Avant-Garfielde turned out in its prime. No one in Sheila yet approaches the divine madness of John Hildreth, who's now at Second City, but the performers work together with such joy that even the weakest improvisations are fun.

Sheila's first foray into the north-side improv scene, Sheila's Giant Wall of Plot Twists, is not a repackaging of its Jimmy's show but a whole new show. The premise must have seemed novel: "two fully improvised one-act comedies." And like every other fully improvised one-act comedy in town, they're based on audience suggestions.

Unfortunately, again like all but the creme de la creme of improv troupes--Ed, Lois Kaz, Metraform--Sheila has created one-acts that are one-acts in one respect only: they lack an intermission. Neither of the one-acts created on opening night told a particularly interesting story, though the first, about a mad scientist with a Dr. Moreau-like fondness for creating monstrous half-human creatures, came close. And neither contained especially vivid, multilayered characters.

Instead the actors (Dana Allande, Derek Hartman, Spike Kunetz, Edmund O'Brien, and John Pier- son) emphasized their great strength as improvisers--their freewheeling spontaneity--by using a device that constantly injects randomness into the show: their much-touted "Giant Wall of Plot Twists." Reminiscent of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind's clothesline of numbers, which randomizes the show's running order, the giant wall consists of 30 numbered cards hung over other cards that have suggestions for plot twists, improv games, rhetorical devices: "j'accuse," "montage," "gratuitous violence."

Whenever the emcee decides an improvisation needs goosing, the audience is asked to shout out the number of a card, and the idea on the card behind it must be incorporated. The wall is an ingenious idea, but I must admit that an hour after the show ended I felt hungry for theater again.

I felt a similar hunger during Vistamax's 90-minute, fully improvised trio of one-act comedies--based, yes, on audience suggestions--currently being performed at Jazz Freddy's old space, Live Bait.

It was probably a mistake to catch this troupe the day after the opening, traditionally a down day in theater. More dispiriting, I was one of only ten people in the audience. Still, I've seen more experienced improvisers shine under considerably more difficult circumstances.

Directed by Jazz Freddy alum and current Lois Kaz ensemble member Kevin Dorff, Vistamax follows the Jazz Freddy model by creating a "dream team" of improvisers culled from companies around the city: Jazz Freddy, Lois Kaz, ImprovOlympic, and the Annoyance Theater. (Most of Jazz Freddy was bought out last year by Second City and fashioned into Lois Kaz.) But Vistamax is more of a farm team. All the members have promise--their three one-acts contained plenty of wonderful moments--but few of them are sufficiently confident, polished, or experienced to pull off the sort of tricks that transform the best improvisations into moments of pure, transcendent theater.

Here one has to settle for moments that begin to soar--as when Bruce Green turns into a talking dog or Susan McLaughlin plays a bored, bone-tired, uninspired stripper at a bachelor party--but then fall to earth because someone didn't quite get what was happening and negated it or followed up with something considerably less clever.

The main problem is that, with the exception of Noah Gregoropoulos (also director of Lois Kaz), everyone in Vistamax is trying too damn hard. Only he is hip to the fact that less is more in improv, and his relaxed, sardonic contributions serve as occasional reminders of how rich and resonant improv can be. When everyone in Vistamax is able to do what he does, the group will be a worthy successor to Jazz Freddy.

On the subject of successors, Real Work's revival of Lepers: Scenes of Desire and Impotence, Neil Labute's astringent, Mamet-esque take on sexual perversity in the 90s, is considerably weaker, more superficial, and less funny than the version that ran for ten sold-out weeks at Cafe Voltaire last year, also produced by Real Work. The whole problem is casting and direction.

Director Mark Rector's production fails either to fully exploit the comic brilliance of Labute's bitterly funny play or to communicate its angry and significant moral message: that our age is empty and oversexed. Instead the production emphasizes the play's most prurient elements--the graphic language, the simulated sex, the extended nude scenes--but fails to provide a narrative or comic framework that's strong enough to prevent these elements from being merely titillating. It doesn't help that the six actors seem to have been cast largely for their beautiful bodies. All the women are babes, all the men are hunks (or at least cute). But only Will Carpenter, playing the least likable character--a sadistic, misogynistic homophobe--knows how to make Labute's incredibly realistic dialogue sing. Of course, if you're looking for a show with more gratuitous nudity than your average gentlemen's club . . .

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