Dallas — The early (5:30pm!) show at the Dallas Comedy Festival on Saturday showcased three approaches to improv. In addition to the conventional method of performers spontaneously creating a narrative from an audience suggestion, one set was done entirely in music and another never utilized the Dallas Comedy House stage at all.
Samurai Drunk is a small mob by improv standards, with 10 guys on a stage. So it was natural they gravitated to a plot that combined The Godfather and West Side Story. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it turns out when you’re the last people left on Earth the natural response is to kill everyone off. Blood splattered, angels groused, and finally a corpse talked. Samurai Drunk kept it high energy, coherent and quick. Watch for their sketch comedy pilot to be released this year.
From the vast well of talent that is OKC Improv came the musical Night Rhymers. Impressive, not just for the combined music and improv chops, but for their depth and attitude. The question to prompt an audience suggestion was exceptional: “What would you tell yourself now not to do five years ago?” A male 20-something on the front row offered: “Don’t get fat.” Two of the ensemble’s female members are heavy. It felt like a direct dig. No matter. Night Rhymers turned it into an anthem of body acceptance, with the entire ensemble, skinny guys and all, singing “I’m fat, I’m fat, fat is where it’s at” and then got the audience to sing as well.
The next one from Night Rhymers involved male titties and it too became an anthem of acceptance. A song on two men in a tiff, required to keep a state’s distance between them, turned into a metaphorical serenade on crossing boundaries. A song on gangsta possums was more than silly. The finale about a member dramatically quitting Facebook—“Goodbye, social media”—bemoaned the pokes and like and constant scrolling on the smart phone. As the chorus wailed “David’s gonna log off from life,” his riposte was “I’m going to delete my cookies, too.” Hope they keep that one and record it. A great cast with OKC Improv musical director Kyle Gossett, plus Cristela Carrizales, Ryan Croft, Kendon Lacy Kellen Hodgeson, Heather Winstead, and musical accompanist Corie Melaugh.
The improv ensemble f.a.c.e. is called “a full access comedy experience.” Indeed, they never used the stage. All the action took place in the audience. It’s hard enough for ensemble member to pick up cues while on a small stage; doing it across a crowded room was one sweet feat. Fun to see the stand-up technique of interacting with the audience transferred to improv. Various scenarios that were improvised—a family entertaining the neighborhood by verbally airing laundry in the front yard, young love on the dance floor, dispensing condoms, and more—were woven and wrapped up nicely by the end. Outstanding were the incredible quipster skills of Terry Catlett and the concentrated maniacal power of Sarah Wyatt.
Experience shows. That was the lesson of Messing w/ Duffy, the finale of the Dallas Comedy Festival on Saturday. Susan Messing of Chicago brought 25+ years of experience in improvisation to the stage, and Kate Duffy of Los Angeles was not far behind. Messing, a former performer on The Second City mainstage, made her mark at that city’s iO Theatre. Both the Chicago outfit and iO West in Los Angeles use the advanced improv program Messing created. That makes her improv royalty. Performers of this echelon are lured to the Dallas Comedy Festival to perform, but more importantly, to teach workshops to students of the Dallas Comedy House improv school. Those workshops, and showcasing the DCH house troupes, are the fest’s raison d'être.
Messing w/ Duffy was packed mostly with Dallas Comedy House students. Sometimes improv for improv fans becomes a fast-paced dog-and-pony show for presenting tricks of the trade meant to impress students. Never once did that feeling come across on Saturday. Messing and Duffy were authentic and relaxed, clearly intent on creating a satisfying show for an audience.
The shapeshifting ability of Messing and Duffy to create three-dimensional characters within seconds was nothing short of stunning. Almost all of improv is based on conversations that too often sound like the theatrical trading of lines. When Messing and Duffy talked with each other it was genuine conversation that I felt charmed to eavesdrop on. With honest characters and conversations, an improvised narrative naturally unfurled with sharp specifics that rang of validity.
Messing and Duffy first concocted sanctimonious church ladies one-upping each other with snide remarks. Many guffaws ensued as backstories emerged revealing neither woman had a pious leg to stand on. The duo danced with pathos as girls at camp trading confessional stories. They then launched into broad slapstick with an airplane passenger who would not take her seat, in the process scrambling over audience members to much laughter. An improv of twins synchronizing their valley girl talk was like vocal scat jazz. A final piece on a daughter coming out as a lesbian to her mom was another dance of revealing backstories and hypocrisies. Messing w/ Duffy was tremendous fun.