Arts & Entertainment » Theater

Genius never sleeps


Whether it's gangly arms, gawky lips, thick middles, or thin limbs, it's not a certain type of body that makes a successful comic. It's what the comic is willing to do with that body.

            Usually you're not aware of it when it's happening. It's only later, when you're trying to describe the hilarity of Jack Black's adolescent spasms or Richard Pryor's brilliant riff on how his father died, that you realize it's what they were doing with their body that made your eyes well with tears and your sides ache. Friday night at Geva Comedy Improv, the bodies were electric.

            You've got to love the fact that you get to bring a draft beer into the actual theater and that you're only paying five bucks for a good hour-and-a-half of improvisational absurdity. But even without the social lubrication and the intoxicating price point of the ticket, the show would be stellar.

            Banking on the American love for athletic events, the format of the evening is structured as a competition between two teams of four comics. The WWE theme is reinforced by the thundering techno and flashing strobes accompanying competitors as they take to the stage.

            The teams take turns improvising upon the audience's suggestions for skits, but there's a specific caveat in each one: In one skit, they have to change from a regular speaking voice to Broadway-style song, in another they have to perform as if it were an ABC Afterschool Special. The "rules" make the improvisations stronger. In the same way that it's the tweaking of jazz standards that made Charlie Parker's bebop brilliant, it's the imposed limits of each piece that make the comedic ramblings genius.

            Then there's the judge. In pretending to be fair, he sits out in the audience, front and center, in the seat with the red X, flashing scorecards from 1-5 and keeping it clean by making naughty-minded comics wear the humiliating "scumbib." He reminded me of a crueler version of Commodus in Gladiator, doling out low scores even when the throng had gone wild, letting us plebes know that it was ultimately his thumb that determined the evening's victor.

            With improv, you can't be too cerebral. There's not enough time. You have to get into the zone and go for it, letting your body move and knowing from the roar of the crowd that you're scoring. Most of the actors were able to do so repeatedly.

            Sinewy, small, and ape-armed, with the demeanor of a dazed and confused barfly, Matt Stanton was enviably insane as a sadomasochistic mother punishing her hapless son for breaking his glasses. He seemed to take real glee in miming a lashing with his belt, and proved, as a great comic does, that it's taboo subjects that get us really laughing.

            The man I'll call Mookie=Frodo, a geeky bearded guy with the magnificent ability to morph from a Slavic-speaking female refugee into an Icelandic gnome, made me hysterical throughout. Sean Daniels took a while to get warmed up, but once he was going, his innate physical confidence carried him along effortlessly. In one difficult skit called "Forward/Reverse," he was a boss bellowing "Farnsworth-Johnson!" and his heaving stomach and straining red face were what made it genuinely comic.

            Tim Goodwin was Monty Pythonesque (the ultimate compliment); not only because of his masterful British accent, but in his willingness to use his nervous, stick-like body to convey humor.

            As much as I hate saying it, the women just couldn't seem to get in the game, and it wasn't that the men wouldn't let them. Really, I thought it came back to the body-as-comedy problem. Joanna Schmitt and Susan Hopkins just didn't want to push themselves physically into the realm of the absurd or the ugly. Even when a college-aged couple from the audience came up to be the bodies for a love affair while the comics did their voiceover, it was the guy who repeatedly raised his shaggy eyebrows and pulled open his shirt in a show of love.

            But think about it: there's no female version of Jackass. You might argue that there's a female WWE, but that isn't funny, it's just dumb. Luckily, Geva Comedy Improv was, for the most part, really smart. As the T-shirts say: It's cheap and pants are optional. What more could you want?

Geva Comedy Improvholds its next performances on Friday and Saturday, May 14 and 15, at 10:30 p.m., on Geva Theatre's Nextstage. 232-4382. $5.