Pup Tent Theatre/Booty and Swag | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Pup Tent Theatre/Booty and Swag


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at the Annoyance Theatre


Rudely Elegant Theater and Gallery

Mick Napier formed Pup Tent Theatre nearly two years ago so that he and his ensemble would have one day a week in Metraform's busy schedule to do long-form improvisations. I caught the group last December before Metraform's A Charlie Brown Christmas and remember enjoying their 60-second warm-up improvisations better than the 30-minute piece they improvised later in the show. The lines were sharper and wittier, and the actors seemed to enjoy themselves more.

Last Thursday the situation was reversed. The warm-up scenes seemed like more work than they were worth, in part because the audience suggestions were particularly vapid ("Give me a historical period." "First circumcision!" "Give me a household appliance." "Vibrator!" "Gerbil blender!") and in part because too many of the improvisations wound up with two or three improvisers firmly rooted to the stage, jabbering away, hoping to get off a funny line or two before the scene blacked out.

Happily, these lusterless warm-ups were followed by one of the most ambitious long-form improvisations I've seen: two related pieces, the first about sleazy Hollywood producers and the ways they decide which shows make it on the air, the second an improvised pilot created to try to please these producers.

Before the show the audience was asked to come up with the title for an imaginary sitcom. After the warm-ups these suggestions were tossed onstage and three titles--"Beverly Sills 90210," "The Vagina Van Dyke Show," and "Bug Up Her Ass"--were randomly chosen. At this point the ensemble was divided in two, with half going upstairs to quickly videotape three mini-pilots for these shows and the other half remaining onstage to improvise a story that would lead to the screening of these mini-pilots.

In less certain hands this would have collapsed under the weight of its complexity. But Pup Tent is a tight ensemble. None of the usual mistakes were made--no one denied the reality of the scene, no one contradicted another actor's choices--and everyone was able to quickly create Metraform's trademark quirky characters.

The most striking transformation of the evening was Jodi Lennon's instantaneous, almost demonic metamorphosis from a perky, tomboyish kid sister to a bullying, insincere, mean-spirited executive. "I love your energy. Can I say that? I said that," she says, not meaning a word. Her accomplishment was nearly equaled by Scot Robinson's shift from a mild- mannered actor to a chair-kicking, chain-smoking manic-depressive.

Even if these rich, intense characters hadn't said anything funny, watching the ensemble pull a pair of plays out of thin air would have been worth the evening.

Just before Booty and Swag, the "improvisational orgasm" currently playing at the Rudely Elegant Theater, the group's director, Bill Russell, said to me in a half-apologetic tone, "You're not going to see anything you haven't seen before." He was right to apologize. Not because his troupe was playing the same old improvisational games hundreds of actors have performed before. But because he, like too many other improvisational actors, still believes it's possible to wow an audience with the sheer novelty of improvisation.

These days most people over the age of 13 are so jaded when it comes to improvisation that only potty-mouths get excited when an actor asks for suggestions. Most people go to improv shows because they want to laugh, they know someone in the show, or they misread the newspaper listings. I know this notion violates the Zen-like faith most improvisers have in the importance of process over product, but what separates the improvisation-based shows that are worth watching from those that aren't is how well they entertain.

Unfortunately, the night I saw Booty and Swag, the experienced seven-member troupe, most of whom studied at one time or another with Del Close, died a thousand deaths as scene after scene failed to come together. I'd never seen this ensemble before, so maybe I just caught them on a bad night. Judging from the exasperated tone with which one of the cast introduced the second act--"And now we are going to do it all again"--I didn't catch one of their better shows. Without a doubt the two performers in the show I remember from my days at ImprovOlympia--Scott Markwell and Brian E. Crane--are capable of much better work. Markwell's gift for graceful physical humor was apparent, but very little of Crane's subtle verbal wit was.

Ironically, they easily had the most open, intelligent, and attentive improv audience I've seen in a while. None of the suggestions were vulgar or stupid, and all of them could have served as good jumping-off points had the cast been inspired. Instead, nearly every scene decayed into two actors standing still, trading mostly unfunny one-liners.

Which is a shame, because Rudely Elegant's basement cabaret, with its mildew and rust, seems like the perfect rough boho performing space for experimental work. Earlier this year the troupe was improvising long Metraform-style pieces but tossed that idea out in favor of the current rather sloppy, conservative structure--two acts' worth of barely related improvised scenes separated by blackouts. Perhaps they gave up too early on the more sophisticated long form.

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