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The Pilot; Brick: Pertonify

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THE PILOT, ImprovOlympic, and BRICK: PERTONIFY, Brick Productions, ImprovOlympic. People don't go into improv because they love theater. They go into it because they want to be on TV. It can work, too: consider the current cast of Saturday Night Live, many of whom cut their teeth at ImprovOlympic or Second City.

In The Pilot, one set of improvisers plays a team of entertainment executives who flesh out a premise for a TV pilot--taking a title from the audience--including setting, characters, and a detailed backstory. This team also includes a guest celebrity--Sun-Times TV critic Phil Rosenthal on the night I saw the show. He turned in a decent performance, thanks in part to a little help from his onstage partner, ImprovOlympic teacher Peter Gwynn. After the brainstorming, another team creates a fully improvised half-hour pilot, complete with commercials.

Having a strong ensemble is essential to this kind of improv, and directors Brad Morris and Charlie McCrackin have put together a great one--likable, energetic, inventive, and, most important, capable of playing well together. When I saw the show, they came up with a very eccentric but amusing half sitcom, half tragicomedy, "Wildfire," about a dysfunctional family in which the father is a fire chief and the lovable Beaver Cleaver-ish son is a pyromaniac. Carrie Barrett and Jim Toth in particular were very funny as the pesky adolescent sister and the kooky neighbor with a scary past. Kate Hawley also deserves kudos for her hypnotic impersonation of fire.

Every ambitious improv troupe with some talent eventually puts on a sketch-comedy revue like Brick's Pertonify. Such shows, usually filled with young, eager, but still green performers, often contain flashes of brilliance; in Pertonify, a young man's ladylove keeps correcting his idealized, mildly annoying view of her. Such shows also usually have plenty of flaws--overwritten scenes, uneven performances, long blackouts. Pertonify is no exception, unlikely to be consistently entertaining except to family and friends.

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