They Might Be Giants … of improv

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

OK, here’s the situation: Ten acting students, graduates of an eight-week improv class, gather to show the world what they’ve learned. On the barest of stages, and with only their wits, they need to think fast and act faster.

Last Saturday (March 9), Tim Mollen was about to put his improv students’ newly-acquired skills to the test at the JCC in Vestal, performing ad-libbed skits under his direction to a room full of people. Expectations were high.

While smiling groups of people streamed in and took their seats, Mollen fiddled at the front of the room with a CD player. The first song on Tim’s pre-performance mix tape was familiar to me … a song from the 1990 album Flood that mentions the band, They Might Be Giants, by name.

“Yes, they might be giants, and I sincerely hope they are,”  I thought, as this talented group had, by all media accounts, poured their hearts into this project, and now were expected to be bigger than life. Was I nervous for them? Um, yeah, because these things have the potential for disaster.

I didn’t need to worry about them at all. They were terrific!

Here’s how it worked: Tim gave the performers, usually just a few at a time, a situation to act out. He asked the audience to give them a few more particulars, and then he steppped aside and let them have at it.  Unscripted, uninhibited, with only the least bit of direction from him, the results were, for the most part, amazing.

The ensemble cast included Chris Baker, John Burns, Sam Gilroy, Dina Good, Shirley Goodman, Hadassah Head, Kyle Holst, Tom Jackson, Len Lindenmuth and Francine Stein. Some of these folks were more seasoned than others, but all of them looked like they were having a great time, and that’s why it worked.

The warm-up skit — a split screen with Stein and Head on one side and Holst and Lindenmuth on the other — was about two girls and two boys at a ball.  It was funniest when Holst got very physical, as he did more than anyone else in the cast. The things that man can do with his arms and legs while keeping his balance was astounding!  Imagine being face up with both hands and feet on the floor, then being directed to “freeze!” by the wily director.

The next, even funnier bit was about a doctor, Gilroy, and his patient, Jackson, discussing a very sensitive and unusual problem. You see, a face seems to be growing on Jackson’s back. Gilroy’s reactions as the doctor were perfect, as if he’d seen this kind of thing before. He reminded me a little of Neil Patrick Harris. But the situation didn’t stop there. Next, without missing a beat, they had to act it out as if they were characters in a romance novel or a crime procedural. Brilliant!

In an Antiques Roadshow skit, the audience provided three appraisal items. A necktie was reimagined as a priceless item from Abe Lincoln’s bedroom. This gave Lindenmuth, as the owner of the tie, a chance to do his best Bill Clinton, complete with evasive remarks about where it had been. Two other nondescript items were then “brought into the Roadshow” by Good and Head, both hoping to score some big bucks with all the greediness their characters could conjure. Jackson’s Roadshow appraiser dashed their hopes as a believable expert.

Stein and Lindenmuth were hysterical as conjoined twins at different times of their lives from gestation to death. Standing back to back, they finally separate in eternity, which after all the silly stuff was downright poignant.

Head, Baker and Goodman acted out the fairy tale, Cinderella, first in just over two minutes, then in one minute, then 30 seconds, then 15! I never saw three people move so fast!

Good was wonderful as a dopey midlevel manager trying to understand the needs of an underling, the disgruntled Goodman. Goodman was funny as the hapless employee, bemoaning with some great faces her inability to produce the company product, a cross between nail clippers and a baseball bat, while the boss, Burns, deadpanned his directive to have 50 gallon drums with toxic waste in them sent home with the employee with a promise of a raise. I had a boss like that once. I thought for sure someone was going to end up in the drum, and Burns made me hate his character enough to hope it would happen to him.

With each new exercise, skit or situation, the actors flexed their creative muscles and, for the most part, got the tone absolutely right. If an opportunity for a one-liner was missed — like why didn’t “Cult Leader Bachelor” Baker in the send-up of The Dating Game say something about “drinking the Kool Aid” or “Beekeeper Bachelor” Burns tell the young woman that he’d treat her like “a queen”? — well, it didn’t matter.  Keep in mind that there was no time for advance joke development; they didn’t get their “occupations” until a second before the skit began. They still were finny, and  I think they did a great job!

Congratulations, also, to audience volunteer “Mellie,” who played the bachelorette. I hope she joins a future class with Tim and company, as she was a natural.

Mollen is to be highly commended for getting so many people to work this well together in such a short period of time. He will be offering another improv seminar, he guessed, in about a year. I may be brave enough by then to try it!

%d bloggers like this: