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Hit the Wall 

Off the Wall's improv comedians aim high, fall short at Kennedy's.

We've all been there: talking with folks around the coffeemaker at work when a topic comes up -- politics, dating, hot-air ballooning, you name it -- and we think of a devastatingly funny comment. Trouble is, we usually get this inspiration anywhere from a couple of hours to a day or two later, when we slam our fist and wish we'd thought of it at the time. It's damn hard to be instantaneously funny, which is why true improvisational comedy is among the most demanding of the live performance arts. Well, it is if you actually make people laugh. The prospect of failure is so terrifying that those who claim to practice this skill often hedge their bets and rely on pre-written, pre-rehearsed bits, which they shoehorn into supposedly spontaneous sketches.

So it is to the immense credit of the Off the Wall improvisational comedy troupe, seven of whom were recently battling flop sweat at Kennedy's DownUnder, that they are working without a net and doing genuine improvisational work. The suggestions fly in from the audience, and the cast then tries to craft those ideas into a semi-cohesive skit with a blackout-worthy exit line. Unfortunately, a number of Off The Wall's participants don't yet have the comic imaginations, performance chops, or fast-twitch recall of cultural references to make this high-trapeze-act version of comedy really soar. This observation comes with the qualifier that every show is different, and folks who bomb one night can kill the next. Still, there were enough moments of dead air and desperation (signaled by the frequent use of "fuck" to garner an easy laugh) that one could conclude this is how the group usually performs.

The blame certainly can't be put on an audience that, apparently, was populated with many adoring friends and family -- to judge by the snapshots being taken and the references to the parents of cast members. Still, the most supportive viewers in the world won't help, if a performer can't take advantage of ripe improvisational opportunities. In the first "game," one fellow was given the role of a Shakespearean porn star, and the mind reels to think of what Robin Williams or Colin Mochrie would do with such a juicy notion. But that would require the ability to remember some of Will's lines (or the deftness to fake them) and then twist those words into X-rated soliloquy of some sort. All this guy could come up with was "I'd like to take Ophelia from behind." That lack of knowledge was a continual obstacle for Off The Wall on this evening. For instance, when a couple of cast members tried to deliver their dialogue in the style of a Broadway musical, they just spoke in a sing-songy way instead of capturing the familiar (and easily parodied) characteristics of stage-musical melodies.

Even with all the gaps, performers Patrick Sirl, Tom Balassy, Rick Rudolph, and Liz Conway had some brief, shining moments -- enough to feed the hope that, over time, Off the Wall can turn real improvisation into genuine inspiration.

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