Live Bait Theater
EVERY SPECK OF DUST THAT FALLS TO EARTH REALLY DOES MAKE THE WHOLE PLANET HEAVIER, #3
Warm Body Theater Company
at Live Bait Theater
At a time when no one, with the occasional exception of Second City, seems able to create a Second City-style comedy revue worth watching, there are numerous companies in town capable of creating fresh, quick-witted, intelligent improvisations. In the past year I've seen strikingly original, fully improvised shows by the Annoyance Theatre, the Free Associates, the Improv Institute, ImprovOlympia, and Chris Hogan and John Lehr of the comedy troupe Ed.
It was probably inevitable that someone would think of creating a dream team of the better improvisers in the city. It was not inevitable that a dream team would create great improvisations. When I used to hang out at the ImprovOlympic six years ago, the dream team Harold Be Thy Name--made up entirely of rising stars at Second City, among them Chris Barnes, Mark Beltzman, and Joel Murray--routinely created the most dismal improvisations. Everyone was so desperate for individual glory that they couldn't work together as a team.
Happily, the people who put together Jazz Freddy knew what they were doing. Not one actor in this 13-member cast--from such diverse companies as the Annoyance Theatre, Ed, New Crime Productions, Blue Velveeta, and ImprovOlympia--seems under the misapprehension that this is his show, and his show alone. For that matter, no one in the troupe seems to feel (or seems made to feel) out of place onstage. Everyone seems willing to submit to improv's Zen-like paradox: submerge your identity in the team, and you will shine as an individual.
The show is structured as three long improvisations based on a single suggestion from the audience. These 30- or 40-minute-long improvisations resemble a cross between Del Close's long, formally structured improvisation the Harold and the looser style of Ed and the Chris Hogan Show, in which scene after scene is created until the time runs out.
The folks in Jazz Freddy aren't as interested in creating a single improvised play from this suggestion as the Free Associates (who improvise a new Tennessee Williams parody every week) or Annoyance Theatre's Pup Tent Theatre (who create a new one-act as part of their show). But their seemingly random scenes do end up connecting. The strands of several stories--including one about a teenage girl's dysfunctional family and another about the confusions that arise when a musician names his acoustical band S. Pistols--weave together by the third set of the show and create the semblance of closure. It helps that the company has a flair for creating believable, multifaceted characters.
The night I saw Jazz Freddy the house was full of improvisers, which may explain why the audience was so receptive--even mildly humorous scenes were rewarded with laughs--and why it provided remarkably smart suggestions. When asked to name an experience associated with adulthood, no one blurted out a potty-mouth remark; instead the company was given the wonderful suggestion of "anxiety."
But even with a less biased audience, Jazz Freddy probably would have triumphed. The performance level of the troupe is too high, the onstage decisions too smart, and the mix of improvisers too varied for it to fail. In every improv class I've ever taken the time always came when the teacher instructed the students to "work at the top of their intelligence." Jazz Freddy is the first troupe I've seen that consistently heeds this often-given, seldom-followed advice.
Less successful, though by no means a failure, is Warm Body's third edition of Every Speck of Dust That Falls to Earth Really Does Make the Whole Planet Heavier. The ensemble has survived the loss of its original space, the Rudely Elegant Theater, and the abrupt exit of one of its founding members, neofuturist David Awl. But it still has adjusting to do before the latest edition of Every Speck of Dust is as consistently funny or intelligent as the first two.
Some of the sketches in this show, structured as a TV newsmagazine moderated by David Kraft, work quite well--notably a very funny jab at Dan Quayle, who's judging a series of malaprop-filled essays, and an effective, surprisingly evenhanded montage of interviews with policemen describing what a riot looks like from behind a badge.
Other sketches seem overwritten and heavy-handed, such as the one in which an articulate and urbane baboon, sounding more than a little like the cultured gorilla in George of the Jungle, discovers to his horror that he will be killed so that his liver can be transplanted into a human.
The Warm Body ensemble has always been fairly up-front about its political biases and its belief in political involvement. In the first edition of Every Speck of Dust, for example, it openly campaigned against prolife conservative congresswoman Penny Pullen in a skit about the importance of voting. The company also has a table in the lobby where audience members can pick up pamphlets from dozens of organizations the cast agrees with.
But in this edition the political satire too often turns into mere hectoring, as in the line from the parodic attack on Jesse Helms, "I wish that I had Jesse's gall!" I wish the Warm Body ensemble would perform fewer bits like this song and more like the sketch in which actors dressed up as famous works of art--Gainsborough's The Blue Boy, Manet's Olympia--are in a police lineup, while another actor playing Jesse Helms tries to determine "which of these works of art committed the obscenity."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.