Impro Theater of Los Angeles' Floyd van Buskirk (left) and Stephen Kearin rehearse off the cuff.
By at least one account, young Richard Cragg was a “big ol' lump of pumpkin-face” to most of London. And that handle isn't anywhere near as flattering as it sounds. Cragg would carry the brickbat into adulthood, throwing it in with the lifetime of snide remarks and beatings that propelled him onto the road to crime. But this is Dickensian fare, after all—and with the aid of a benevolent spirit from the grave, Chuck's kindly nature helps unravel a Cragg-inspired extortion plot, scoring a worldwide blow for truth and justice and the inspiration for what little is left of the American Way.
If that synopsis piques your interest, you're SOL, because it's the closest you'll ever get to the show. That's the irony of improvisational theater for ya—the personnel tell a story without a story to tell, mounting a world premiere every night, with a lone make-or-break opportunity for excellence and nary a safety net below. Many critics (and audiences) say improv isn't really theater at all, as it opts for hair-trigger reactions in place of storytelling traditions that reflect the best and worst of the company's talent and, indeed, of our lives.
Impro Theatre of Los Angeles, now a regular visitor on select Monday nights at Solana Beach's North Coast Repertory Theatre, begs to differ. Stories, in fact, have been its stock in trade since its founding in 1988; how else could it have nailed its recent An UnScripted Carol so precisely without Dickens to fall back on? The title lets slip that the sketch was loosely based on Dickens' A Christmas Carol—Cragg had targeted cough-drop magnate Mr. Brawny, the latter's trust in humanity cut short amid the suspicious drowning death of his son Tomothy. Even as the sketch takes its liberties, Dickens' gentility and lush language are everywhere, coloring the piece with the believability that marks the greatest in traditional theater.
“Our process,” director Brian Lohmann explained in the program notes, “is to make a careful study of [the writer's] techniques, archetypes and cultural context.” It's the lack of a script that makes those goals so much fun to achieve. Brian Jones' Brawny, arms and legs flailing and eyes shut tight in suspicion, was a scream of a caricature, with Lisa Frederickson's assorted townspeople prompting the key exchanges on which the story grew. Improv, they seemed to say, is the sincerest form of theatrical flattery. Writers arrive at their ideas through their best efforts at spontaneity and imagination; why shouldn't the actors as well?
San Diego's Lamb's Players Theatre would be really good at this kind of thing, and that's only to say that Lamb's has built its excellence on the culture of ensemble that makes for the best improv. Most of the stage staff have been together for a long time and are intimately familiar with one another's body language, voices, dispositions and tastes.
Since that company won't depart from its highly successful take on traditional theater anytime soon, we'll just have to wait until Monday, Feb. 1, when Impro (www.improtheatre.com) returns to North Coast with Sondheim UnScripted, its look at the famed Broadway composer. The group will reprise its takes on Jane Austen and Tennessee Williams next year, as well, with a look at Anton Chekhov thrown in during the spring. The buzz says that the Williams show is hilarious, which is hard to fathom given Tennessee's morosity. Then again, he wrote some of the best plays of the 20th century, ignorant of the truly admirable talent that would interpret those plays to their liking in the 21st. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.