Lots of late-end baby boomers fondly remember Harold and the Purple Crayon, a 1955 children's book by Crockett Johnson. The little boy Harold used a purple crayon to create worlds where he entertained himself. From this lovely book The Harold, a long-form style of improv with sketches lasting up to an hour, was named. So was Purple Crayon of Yale, the university's second oldest improv group, the relatively recent upstart to Yale's Ex!t Players, the oldest college-based long-form ensemble in the country.
The Saturday performance at Out of the Loop Fring Festival of Purple Crayon of Yale left me hoping that their long-form was much better than the short-form on display. 12-Sscene Madness!, which was only at Loop for one performance, crammed a dozen sketches into an hour. With a large ensemble of nine players, it captured the chaotic madness of playground kids doing make believe, but without the references and context that make for relevant comedy. Granted, this was a college troupe with limited real-world experience.
An improv skit is prompted by a word or phrase suggested by the audience. Once started by some ensemble members, others can tag them out, enter the skit and move it forward with their own ideas. In two skits the troupe did an admirable job with short versions of the heavily plotted farce that The Harold is known for. But repeatedly on Saturday, tagging was too frequent and few things weren't allowed to develop, especially personalities. An improv pro can create a character instantly with a facial expression, body language and voice, but there was precious little of that on display.
After 12 suggestions were recruited from audience, written and taped on board, a moment of reflection on the material would have revealed the unintentional aquatic theme that developed with the suggestions of bathing penguins, Jedi cruise ship, octopus and undersea palace. Such an opportunity to create and develop recurring aquatic characters was wasted. Instead we twice got them waving their arms to imitate kelp.
The ensemble shone the most when the humor was physical, such as the undersea palace skit with "oppressed merfolk" tottering around on flippers. But even that was under-realized. The suggestion of "What my dog thinks about" became a mini-skit of 5 seconds of barking, while it could have been so rich, and a sketch on the prompt of "octopus" that was beyond nonsensical and missed a potential great sight gag of forming four two-legged players into an eight-limbed beast.
Dallas is usually abundant in improv groups and the Loop's FTP Comedy offering was superb. Plan to get your laugh on at the Dallas Comedy Festival in late March and The Alternative Comedy Theater's Big Sexy Weekend of Improv in June.
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