They’ve improvised Shakespeare. They’ve improvised Film Noir and The Twilight Zone. They’ve improvised Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Chekhov. They’ve even had the chutzpah to improvise Stephen Sondheim, music, lyrics, and all. And now the improv geniuses who call themselves Impro Theatre are back for business at the Falcon Theatre with their latest (and one of their very best) confections to date—improvising a full-length “feature film” live onstage in that most quintessential of American movie genres: The Western UnScripted.
As in past UnScripted gems, all it takes is a couple of audience prompts to set things in motion, and should you doubt that absolutely nothing is planned in advance, stop by a second time and you’ll see an entirely different show—and a number of different performers, since only about half of the Impro Theatre troupe of twenty ensemble members and guest artists go on at one time. (Note: Production stills feature some cast members not reviewed here.)
Last night’s Opening Nighters suggested a) a family heirloom (a rabbit’s foot) and b) an event (the arrival of a new sheriff in town), and lo and behold the townspeople of Casualty had gathered to await said sheriff’s arrival. (“I don’t see anyone coming yet.” “He’s sure to end up dead just like the last ones.” “These sheriffs is like pigs to the slaughter.”)
Among the first to welcome Sheriff Billy Turner (Brian Lohmann) to town was his onetime love Carlotta Jimenez (Kelly Holden-Bashar), prompting Dodge City native (and former Texas Ranger) Billy to remark, “If I’d known you were in Casualty, I would’ve come sooner … or not come at all.”
As in any Impro Theatre show, names, places, and nonsensical quips like the above are each and every one of them improvised on the spot. (“Don’t you ever move away from my slap again!” “I know you didn’t tell and I won’t tell them you didn’t tell.” “I know some people who’ve been on the bottle so long, they don’t know bread when they see it.”) And as for the audience-suggested rabbit’s foot, it turns out that Sheriff Billy is never without his “bunny foot,” a gift from “Arapaho Joe,” and in case you’re wondering why there are notches in it, “I put a notch in my rabbit’s foot every time I feel lucky.”
Other characters introduced for the first—and last—time on Opening Night included Inga (Edi Patterson), the town’s requisite Swede; Irish-brogued “Ma” O’Malley (Jo McGinley) and her 16-year-old daughter Mary (Lisa Fredrickson); boyish town biographer (and deputy wannabe) Danny Danielson (Nick Massouh); saloon player-piano-player Chingy (Stephen Kearin); other assorted locals (Floyd VanBuskirk as town drunk Turk Baker and Paul Rogan as Pecos); and saloon gal Katie (Patterson), kept on a very short leash by bad guy Rocky Montgomery (Dan O’Connor), himself kept under the whip (sorry, make that under the cane) of the dastardly Mr. Monroe (Rogan).
Will Sheriff Billy rescue Casualty (and a kidnapped Katie) from Rocky’s evil clutches? Will Katie achieve her dream of “my own little homestead where I’d have sheep (to shear), but no cattle?” Will the townsfolk remember that even if they get rid of Rocky, they will still have to deal with Mr. Monroe?
Hopefully, the answer to all of the above is a great big fat “Yes,” but then again you never know when everything is being improvised right before your eyes, including live sound effects (horse whinnies, the clip-clop of hoofs, a rolling-pin on dough, etc.) voiced into a mike by whichever actor happens not to be onstage.
As with every Impro Theater UnScripted show, much of the fun can be found in the unexpected twists that might even take cast members by surprise. Unwittingly change the name of your character and you might have to improvise your way out of the jam. (“They call me all sorts of names here. They call me Trudy too.”) Fail to notice that an invisible “piany” happens to be at the foot of the stairs and you’ll find yourself having to “push” it out of the way. And should a cast member suddenly show up with a fake severed hand, you’ll have to do some very quick thinking. (“You mean he dug up Sheriff Will and cut off his hand and put it in the stew?” “The irony is, he’s got a long lifeline.”)
Cast members have clearly done their Hollywood Western homework under O’Connor and Kearin’s well-honed direction, there being traces of one classic cowboy flick after another in The Western UnScripted.
In fact, it’s to the Impro Theatre ensemble’s great credit just how many of the following “Key Defining Elements” (as enumerated by a certain “Alan” on Yahoo Answers just a few months back) found themselves into The Western UnScripted on Opening Night: “A larger than life hero with a checkered/tragic past with a score to settle, gritty oppressed western town, really evil overlord/cattle baron/crazy nut as villain, rival families/factions fighting over________, a hidden treasure, a fun sidekick, a smart horse, a lady who needs rescuing, a stampede, several fist fights or bar room brawls, an epic showdown, and a dance.” (Whichever among them weren’t there on Opening Night will likely show up sometime or other during the Falcon Theatre run.)
There are no better improvisers than those you’ll see on the Falcon stage, and you haven’t really seen improv (forget those itsy-bitsy sketches on Whose Line Is it Anyway?) till you’ve seen an entire “movie” improvised from scratch. (Remember that there’s no mastermind telling these actors when to enter or exit or what they’re going to say once they’ve started or joined a scene.) And as for breaking character a la The Carol Burnett Show, these master thespians wouldn’t think of breaking up mid-scene. (Well, you might see a smile cross an actor’s face, but ever so subtly so.)
Upcoming performances will feature a seemingly endless mix of cast members that might include any of last night’s terrific ten (all part of the Impro Theatre ensemble) or any of the ten who took the night off—ensemble members Kari Coleman and Michele Spears and ensemble guest artists Daniel Blinkoff, Ted Cannon, Robert Covarubbias, Rebecca Lowman, Michael Manuel, Mike Rock, Ryan Smith, and Patty Worham, past Impro Theatre visits having made abundantly clear to this reviewer that whomever you see onstage, you’ll be seeing improv artists at their most inspired.
The Western UnScripted benefits from a stunning Falcon Theatre set by Sandra Burns, whose period costumes allow cast members to play a variety of roles, though Native American garb is conspicuously absent. Leigh Allen’s lighting design is topnotch too, with major kudos due stage manager Michael Becker for his lighting improv up in the booth and to Alex Caan for his sound improv, whether gunshots or flying arrows or the sharply-timed insertion of classic Western movie themes by the likes of Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Elmer Bernstein. Mike Jespersen is technical director.
Following runs at the Elephant, the Carrie Hamilton, and The Odyssey, Impro Theatre’s latest engagement at the Falcon is their highest profile gig to date, eminently deserved, and if I’m not mistaken, likely to lead to many return visits. Franchises don’t get any more endlessly entertaining than when UnScripted.
Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.
September 5, 2014
Photos: Rebecca Asher