Add Water & Stir
at Link's Hall, February 3
By Jack Helbig
Several years ago the folks in the much-praised troupe ED hit a creative brick wall. After ED showed that an evening of long-form improv comedy could be entertaining, a small core of ensemble members led by Jim Dennen became determined to shake the idea that improvisation was merely a handmaiden to comedy. So they morphed into a group called Dawn Toddy and attempted to improvise a full-length serious play accompanied by improvised music.
It was an interesting failure. Dawn Toddy's stabs at serious drama seemed mawkish and melodramatic, and never more so than when these talented comedians created some wonderfully hilarious comic scene. Nothing punctures bathos like a good laugh.
What I realize now is that perhaps the answer to Dawn Toddy's creative dilemma can be found in improvisational dance--at least in the light, witty, graceful improvisations created by Add Water & Stir, directed by Janet Skidmore Harpole. At this time in Chicago, improvisation is so bound up with Second City and the urge to create comedy--and a very talky kind of comedy at that--that perhaps it's time to explore nonverbal routes.
After a warm-up suite of improvised dances around the theme of a full moon--which included a haunting tableau of dancers in poses reminiscent at once of gravestones and of the dead rising from graves--Add Water & Stir began the way countless other improv troupes have started, with someone onstage (Harpole), clipboard in hand, collecting audience suggestions. I shouldn't have been surprised at the quality and number of suggestions, almost one per audience member in Link's Hall's tiny seating area. Nor should I have been surprised, given the kind of well-behaved, attentive people who seem to attend dance concerts, that there were no potty mouths there waiting for the chance to blurt out "toilet" or "gynecologist." But I was. Almost as surprised as I was at the sublime work Harpole et al were able to create in their hour-long show from the dozen or so words chosen.
The eight-member troupe huddled for a minute--dividing up the suggestions, I assume, and doing a little slapdash planning--then began a series of short improvisations, each one introduced with a brief shouted title like "First Dead American for Three." These "shorts" were for me the most satisfying parts of the evening, so taken was I with how quickly and crisply the ensemble were able to create on the spot a little performance out of nothing but their bodies. The two "suites" on the bill were more ambitious in scope and involved more dancers, but it seems much harder to create a coherent, resonant dance in three minutes than to muck around onstage for ten until a theme emerges. In "Blind Date for Four," for example, four dancers created a witty but ultimately bittersweet piece, one performer folded into herself, isolated, as she recited a personal ad while the other three enacted scenes from relationships. These short pieces also allowed for more playfulness than the longer bits. In "Ugh for Three" the troupe's three men explored maleness and male body language by taking various macho, occasionally cavemanlike poses (hence the "Ugh"). Other poses recalled the graceful attitudes of athletes in action.
Of the two less memorable longer pieces following, one was performed just by the women, the other just by the men. After intermission a still longer work based on an audience suggestion I would have thought full of possibility--water--yielded movements reminiscent of swimming and waves lapping that were triter and more predictable than earlier improvisations. The charming if gimmicky group improv for ensemble and three chairs that followed was spiked with one dancer's sweet and remarkably faithful homage to the recently deceased Gene Kelly, a dancer as drawn to gimmicky dance numbers as ants are to a picnic--just ask his one-time partner, Jerry the Mouse.
The final piece of the evening was the one that showed just how much has been left unexplored in theatrical circles despite the current boom in improv. Harpole collected three movements from the audience: a shaking arm, a grimace with tongue full out, and a graceful twisting movement of the body around a palm held up. The ensemble immediately used these suggestions as the basis for a short, funny, messy piece full of bizarre but playful moments--as when everyone suddenly bunched into a clump of bodies all twisting and shaking and making faces with their tongues hanging out. They made me realize how little truly innocent, childlike play I'd seen recently from improvisational comedy troupes. And it's from such right-brained play--not the left brain's ego-bound desire to create something "important"--that serious, moving work emerges.