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Spontaneous Convulsion 

The Oliver Twisted improv team hits the funny bone.

Twisted? Yes, but also very funny.
  • Twisted? Yes, but also very funny.

It has been claimed that there's a gene in some people's DNA spiral that compels them to seek out risky, potentially harmful activities, such as rock climbing, deep-sea diving, and parking at expired meters in Cleveland Heights. Such daredevils apparently find contentment in perilous situations that others would do practically anything to avoid. And while appearing onstage is absolutely terrifying to most folks, even the most confident and experienced actors or stand-up comics can be reduced to a quivering mass of Don Knotts-like fidgets at the thought of appearing before an audience without a script -- and being expected to make those observers laugh. Over and over again.

Clearly, improvisational comedians are a different breed, and their shows can vary wildly, from a tediously predictable flinging of poop-and-fart gags to soaring flights of spontaneous humor -- the kind of incandescent, quick-spark wit that emerges at the best cocktail parties. Of course, being funny at a martini soirée or kegger with indulgent friends is a far sight from battling flop sweat in front of a gathering of strangers, asking them for topic suggestions, and then spinning those random responses into comical skits.

The Second City comedy troupe was combining this kind of humor with a selection of pre-written material -- and doing it quite well -- until that venue folded recently due to sporadic attendance. Happily, however, those homeless humorists have been taken in by the warmhearted folks at Pickwick & Frolic and given their own Monday-evening performance slot in the capacious yet cozy confines of the Hilarities Comedy Club. True to their risk-adoring genes, in this new show the transplanted seven-member group titled Oliver Twisted is doing audience-inspired material exclusively, without the safety net of scripted modules. And thanks to a fortunate blending of physical types and personalities among the performers, along with their determined insistence on yanking every loose comedic thread, this is an improv experience that will leave you laughing far more often than wincing.

Working their way through a series of familiar sketch patterns -- the "freeze" bit, where performers continually replace each other in one scene and transform it into something completely different; the "movie" bit, where they create instant dialogue in the style of famous directors and authors -- the gang shows a firm grasp of show-business forms and free-floating historical allusions. On this night, they leapt agilely from the Inquisition to Harriet Tubman and from Terri McMillan chick-flicks to Ingmar Bergman's dense cinematic symbolism. While the bits have to be grounded in some knowledge of the recommended topic, this was no intellectual exercise -- especially when Napoleon started giving French-kissing lessons to a very willing Ms. Tubman (played by a man). One of the funniest moments came during a turbocharged game of charades, when neither performer-contestant could come up with the object word "coagulate," despite a series of desperately histrionic clues from the others.

Every comedy company needs a dangerous participant, the one -- such as John Belushi -- who is a bit of a loose cannon and can set all the others bouncing off each other. That role in Twisted is filled by Randall Harr, a fairly normal-looking fellow until he's given a movie genre, a household item, or a celebrity to inhabit. Then he transforms into a maniacally, often hilariously intense embodiment of whatever animal, vegetable, or mineral he's been assigned. Balancing Harr's heat is the sang-froid of Cody Dove, whose cool and ironic panache is particularly amusing when a bit isn't going as well as possible and a wry perspective is needed. As the only female in the bunch, svelte Lauren Dowden is just as edgy and energetic as the boys.

Host and quasi-adult Kiff VandenHuevel keeps the proceedings grounded, while Nate Cockerill (looking and frequently acting like a second cousin of Flounder, from Animal House) and Sean Lackey (who does a dandy impression of a tumbling tumbleweed) round out the band of ad-libbers. They are accompanied, with appropriate music and occasional sound effects, by quick-thinking Adam Brooks on the electronic keyboard. Just as important as their individual talents is the snug ensemble vibe they generate, giving the entire production a finished feel that is often missing in more traditional stage fare.

So if you have no interest in Ringling Brothers extravaganzas, but still enjoy seeing people risk their necks on a high wire (minus the tacky Lurex costumes), you might consider spending a Monday evening in the company of Oliver Twisted. With any luck, you may be selected to have an entire musical written, based on your name, job, and community of residence. That's certainly an honor to treasure. Oh, and when they ask for "a room in a house," come up with another answer than the bathroom. Please.

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