Monday, Aug. 2, 2010

Off Broadway Theatre's Last Show

The 5th Annual Milwaukee Comedy Fest Closes Water Street Theatre

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The last words spoken in a performance at the Off Broadway Theatre were uttered by Anna Wolfe. She said something about being sure to eat your vegetables. The lights faded. When they came up again, Matt Kemple were back to close out the Teen comedy show and the 5th annual Milwaukee Comedy Festival.  

The last of many, many shows at the Off Broadway Theatre was Teen Comedy day at the 5th Annual Milwaukee Comedy Fest. I have been going to the theatre for years . . . saw some of the first shows I’d ever seen in Milwaukee there. I will miss everything, from the intimacy of the theatre to the smell of hair product on my trip through the lobby on my way up to the second floor space.

Teen comedy is an interesting way for the theatre to go out. The day was recently introduced to the fest as a way to showcase work from the youngest sketch and improv groups. In years past ,the day included appearances by out of town groups. This year’s show was exclusively populated by Milwaukee teens.

The show opened with a stand-up set by Joel Boyd. The comic mentioned his age pretty early on . . . and I couldn’t help but come to the somewhat alarming realization that I was, at the time, wearing a Fuel Café T-shirt that was only a year younger than he was. A stand-up not nearly out of high school yet, Boyd has been doing stand-up for three years. His material is pretty standard fare, but his poise and delivery are almost perfect. Material included bits about Dora the Explorer, a girl next door half his age who has a crush on him and kind of a clever bit about reversing ethnic stereotypes.

Boyd was present for almost the entire show, as he is part of all but one of the four groups that were in the show. His stand-up was followed by Scoots Schticks—a group featuring him and a few other guys in black with brightly-colored sneakers and large, bright neckties. That group was followed by the Boyd-less Falcon Improv group from Brown Deer High School, Organized Chaos and After School Special.

Watching teen improv is interesting on a level so rarely attained by traditional adult improv groups. Even when adult improv isn’t going for the easy laughs, adult improv-ers tend to fall into certain behavioral comic formulae. When you find out that most people will laugh if you do something a certain way, you will tend to behave that way when presented with certain improv stimuli. B.F. Skinner could probably explain it better than me, but he’s dead . . . the point I’m trying to make is that, watching teen improv is watching the creative process at work. These performers aren’t used to the stage. They’re only starting to get those connections that experienced comics have already established. A knee-jerk comic reaction to any improv situation comes easily for a seasoned improv comic. Those who aren’t as experienced are more willing to try new things, which can be interesting to watch when it’s not mind-numbingly boring. And even when there’s complete silence in teen improv, it’s interesting to watch the comics try to work out exactly where the hell it is that they’re going so that they can get to the next laugh. It’s a lot closer to watching the creative process at work than traditional improv.

All of this somehow leads to After School Special, which came away with a standing ovation at the end of the show. The premise is kind of simple—the group takes  suggestion from the audience and frames an improvised “After School Special,” around the suggestion featuring stock characters they’ve been working with. For four rather experienced teen comics, it’s kind of a cross between improv and sketch comedy. There’s some vaguely trippy stuff in here--particularly Kevin Garrity  playing a high school improv comedy teacher. The group plays improv characters doing improv. Boyd plays, among other things, a semi-hip principal. Nevin Langhus’ most interesting character is a wise janitor who speaks in aphoristic riddles. Anna was at the center of the improv sketch, playing a high school girl named Anna. The group worked through time-worn clichés from After School Special-style film and TV fare, working its way toward the tender revelation of the sketch’s message, which mixes the cheesy comedy of  high school morality tales with genuine, seemingly heartfelt emotion. Anna Wolfe speaks about the importance of listening to parents even when they seem to be overbearing . . . and for some reason eating vegetables. The poignant music playing in the background comes to a close, the light fall and the show comes to a close.

Comedy Fest founder Matt Kemple’s voice was nearly dead as the show closed. Co-producer Patrick Schmitz helped him close-out the fifth annual Comedy Fest. With that done, the summer is nearly at an end. The 2010-2011 theatre season is right around the corner. 

 

 

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