BART GREENBERG on the Improvisational Repertory Theater Ensemble’s
Big, Rich & Powerful
Small, Cheap & Weak
When your “musical guest” who has nothing to do with the show is the sole highlight of the evening, something has gone terribly wrong. IRTE: The Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble is celebrating its fifth season of improvised comedy. Unlike other improv evenings, the company present one full-length play as opposed to a series of sketches. It’s an admirable goal, but the ensemble seems incapable of shaping a full story on its feet.
Big, Rich & Powerful, conceived and directed by Robert Baumgardner, is an intended “homage” to former prime time soaps, such as Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon Crest, et al. This seems a puzzling choice to begin with, since the heyday of these shows is long, long past (recent attempts to revive the style with a renewed Dallas fizzled badly). On top of that, the acting company seem to base their interpretations of the style based on dim memories or glances at a couple of episodes. Marathon viewing of some of the classics would be needed to capture the dramatic style which involved complete commitment to the melodramatic plotlines, a carefully controlled over-the-top delivery, and a true comfort in the extravagant settings and clothing of the 80s (and for every actor under 40, comfort being unclothed at least once an episode).
In performance, only Brianna Lee as the matriarch of the family captured the mix of entitlement and slumming that fading stars like Jane Wyman and Barbara Stanwyck brought to their roles. The rest of the cast played in scattered styles ranging from burlesque to Saturday Night Live sketch comedy with a surprising lack of consistency considering they are a regular company. Ugly costuming and wigs didn’t help either, nor did a table of props evidently bought from a nearby 99 Cents Store used by the cast in mostly unimaginative ways.
More surprisingly, the improv elements of the show were very disappointing and badly handled. Despite claims that the “audience will create the lusty tale”, only three times were the audience asked for suggestions, and two of those suggestions were quickly forgotten. The cast were no better at listening to each other: a scene in a car involving two of the women and an invisible policeman became confused as one actress insisted on keeping driving while the other continued a conversation with the cop. Scenes in general were started by one actor without a clear direction or motivation; others wandered in to contribute some chat, and then the scene dwindled to no ending, just fading out as a new scene started.
As to the musical guest, Craig Greenberg is a troubadour piano man who made the piano swing as he shared three original songs. His style and material was fresh, personal and original and he got the audience far more involved in the performance (guiding a singalong on his third number) than the cast did during the rest of the evening.
Big, Rich & Powerful
IRTE: The Improvisational Repretory Theatre Ensemble
March 18, 19, 25 & 26
The Producers Club
358 W. 44th St., New York, NY
It’s too bad this critic didn’t understand the slapstick schtick that is IRTE’s style of improvisational theatre. The 1980s prime time soaps that “Big, Rich & Powerful” spoofed were actually performed not too far off from the over-the-top style the actors in this little improv presented, and that can be witnessed on endless You Tube posts. As for the IRTE props — 99-cent props are 99-cent and thrift shop props for a reason: they’re cheap and cheap is, for most people, funny. If they were expensive props, you’d be watching a Broadway show at $150 a pop. But IRTE shows are $12 a pop in a 40-seat theatre off, off, off Broadway (even though The Producer’s Club is in the heart of the theatre district). The props are only on stage for the split-second inspiration they provide to the performers … such as the light blue plastic $1 picnic tablecloth used to represent the mansion pool and/or the ocean … otherwise, as in most improvisation, the props aren’t needed or used at all. If improv actors say there’s a pool, then there’s a pool. But that’s because the one thing improvisational theatre does require the audience to have is imagination. That might be what this critic, and not the troupe, is lacking. In the scene he cites with the cop — since the actresses were driving, shouting to each other AND shouting to the cop, an audience member on the ball should understand the cop is on a motorcycle or a patrol car, driving alongside the characters’ auto. Improv actors are never wrong … because there is no script. Whatever happens IS the script. (Personally, I haven’t seen a cop on foot in “mansioned” suburbia myself in decades.) As in all theatre, film, and literature, willing suspension of disbelieve is critical to the experience. If you want realistic, non-fiction, you have to watch a documentary or the nightly news (and even then you still might get fiction.) Watching improvisational theatre, where anything and everything is possible, is a different kind of experience altogether. I suggest that for a few bucks people buy a ticket and judge for themselves.