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Scenic Root/Fancy Ketchup

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SCENIC ROOT

at the Neo-Futurarium

It can't be easy to do comedy over a funeral home (in this case the Neo-Futurarium, formerly the home of Theater Oobleck). But no matter how tough the crowd, Scenic Root is up to the challenge. This sharp-witted, refreshingly literate improv-comedy group is led by Patrick Manley, an ex-Miamian who started out with that city's popular Mental Floss company but has left to pursue a more theatrical, reality-based brand of improv.

And he seems to have caught it. Scenic Root is well worth a look--though on the night I saw this attractive group the crowd was two critics and a guest (which meant that some audience suggestions inevitably came from the cast of six). We never got a program or press release, but it's just as well--isolating the artists from the ensemble might be a mistake.

The Scenic Root offers the usual audience-based improv games, but the members are so good at listening and playing with each other that they often transform games we've seen before. Their "Story-telling" improv, in which the plot is rapidly passed from player to player (and the actor who breaks the chain must fake an imaginative stage death), turned into a sweetly wacky tale of Maggie Thatcher and Noel Coward joining forces for a career in show biz. Their choice for improv "Charades," in which an actor must guess the phrase from other players' histrionic clues, was that dreadful line of hype "I loved it--it was better than Cats!" "Tag Freeze," however, in which the actors hold their positions onstage but switch the situation, was no better than entry-level Second City.

But that was as bad as it got. In "Shakespeare Theater" (the actors' chance to create the Bard's "37th play"), Romeo and Juliet fought over a parking place in astonishingly faithful blank-verse cadences. Out of the suggested setting of a ballpark washroom the Roots created an acid-etched confrontation between an old-school veteran player and a female rookie who wants equal rights in everything. In a bit called "Lecture Over a Funeral Parlor," two Roots successfully bounced from a history of the American seamstress to a treatise on the space shuttle, in the process creating two comically insulated universes.

The songs, by Manley, are a cut or ten above the targets of most easy-thinking revues. They include a country-gospel tribute to the Great Flood of 1992, an explicit duet about a devoted couple who cherish even each other's flatulence ("We turn the other cheek," etc), and a peppy finale devoted to our current foreign-policy crisis: having no big enemy to hate.

Manley's writing on three or four of the sketches offers a bit more human stuff than you get from most brand-name, TV-topical comedy. A bit where two New England geezers embarrass a third with geriatric gossip teems with scatological country slang. In a more tender vein a woman and man at a wedding move effortlessly from small to big talk; by the time she learns he's a paraplegic it doesn't matter much. A lesser offering explores the perils of ordering fast food from a drive-through with a speaker on the blink.

One actor's elaborate description of a UFO sighting turned wickedly unpredictable, strategically interrupted as it was by hilariously incongruous nouns, verbs, and adjectives suggested in advance by the audience. Equally sidesplitting was a rapid-fire party scene in which the lines were abstract descriptions of the characters' inner ferment; familiar as this bit has become, I've never seen it done with such clever consistency and psychological ruthlessness. The folks in the funeral parlor are missing a lot of fun.

FANCY KETCHUP

at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

In this town it takes raw nerve for a comedy troupe not to do improv--it's like a tourist refusing to see the Sears Tower. The comedians who make up Fancy Ketchup come from Tucson, a town where the improv tradition is as shallow as the soil, and instead of making it up as they go along like vintage Chicago yuksters the five Ketchups are determined to produce a brand-new hour-long show every Wednesday. This is mainly for the sake of variety and topicality, but also because they want to make sure they deliver the goods rather than risk everything on a learning experience.

Judging from the results, improv couldn't have been much riskier. Little more than half an hour long and with only three (Jim Bruce, Maria Correll, and Paul Goebel) of the five comics present (missing were Paul Murietta and Graham Elwood), this scripted edition was more miss than hit. The too-brief sketches (I never thought I'd complain about this!) got off on the wrong premise, were left undeveloped, or ended with a dumb groaner or easy dismissal. (Fancy Ketchup should visit Scenic Root.)

A few bits showed promise, even if the dialogue didn't explore the premises. In the best sketch Bruce plays a man on a date who tells his girl he has 56 minutes to live. Working from notes, he speeds up their relationship and proceeds to a quickie marriage, adjustment quarrels, and instant reconciliations--everything but sex. Unfortunately the sketch ends with a paltry joke about necrophilia.

More often the Ketchups offer weird, unproductive comic fusions, exercises in in-your-face incongruity. An aerobics teacher leads a karate class, trying to pass off fat-burning exercises as self-defense. Batman carries a sign reading Will Fight Crime for Food. A dating couple can't agree on a movie, so they go welding. A Perot campaign worker suffers from separation anxiety.

But weirdness ain't enough: the characters need some hint of an inner life, however wacky, to anchor them in reality and bring us into the joke.

Occasionally this does happen. Bruce dumbed down to play a jerk who at first seems racist ("a freak holdover from the Eisenhower era") or misanthropic. But he's not so bad--he just hates dead people (they're so unresponsive). Correll's big moment came when she played a suspicious wife who's smugly convinced that her dweebish husband is Spider-Man; his denial just confirms her suspicions. (Her small moment came when, in some tasteless consumer humor, she demonstrated the Thighmaster's new accessory, a coat-hanger-like "Aborticizer": you can work out and get rid of that unwanted kid at the same time. The crowd loved it, though.)

Of course comedy is fickle: next week all five will be back with new material and Fancy Ketchup could read us the laugh riot act. But on this evening, despite their notion that a finished product would be funnier, the Ketchups exhibited all the foibles of their improv colleagues.

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