May 9, 2003

Off-Off: legacy of laughs

If you're not familiar with Off-Off Campus, listen up: it is the second-oldest and arguably the most heralded collegiate improv comedy group in the country. It was started by the same stock of comedians who founded The Second City, many of whose members have gone on to perform on Saturday Night Live and lucrative films. There is a new generation of Off-Off selected every year, and this year's group is comprised of the funniest of the funny at the U of C (they are out there). I saw last Friday's show at the Blue Gargoyle in the University Church, and can tell you without hesitation that Off-Off is as good as ever.

The performers in this quarter's review, entitled Pillow Fight Club, include Lucy Wall, Rebecca Phillips, Dave Maher, Leila Sales, and Ramiro Castro, Jr., all of whom are members of the 17th Generation, with John Lovejoy in the director's chair. Lovejoy was also a member of the 15th Generation of Off-Off, and he lends some of that cast's machismo to this show, not that it was really lacking anyway. Classic comedy lines, like "I'll have the filet mignon-medium. She'll have the pasta alfredo-small," were to be found in abundance.

There was a good balance between written scenes and improv, as well as some improv games such as Entrances and Exits, where each character has a word assigned to him or her by the audience and must leave or enter the scene when their word is spoken. The show had the right amount of these improv games-not enough to be tiresome, but enough to spice things up.

If there was one weakness to the show, it was the blacks (short scenes designed to provide quick laughs and maintain momentum). They were funny, just not that funny, as blacks traditionally are. However, the rest of the show more than made up for them. There was one particularly good scene starring Ramiro, Dave, and Rebecca, in which three prison inmates discuss a jailbreak. Ramiro was a supposed "expert," but his germophobia and hypochondria severely limited his value.

If you've seen some of the other recent Off-Off Campus reviews, this one is probably most similar to the 15th Generation's If These Balls Could Talk, performed in the fall of 2001. Both had a similar balance between scenes and improv, most likely due to the presence of the aforementioned 15th Generation's John Lovejoy as director of the current show. Fall quarter's A River Runs Through Id was much more scene and mid- to long-form improv-based, while Pastor of Muppets, one of the winter shows, was rooted more in improv games.

Sound director Phil Brinkman did a great job with the song selection for the show. In classic Off-Off style, there was a mix of punk (The Clash's "Rock the Casbah"), 80's (Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me"), and oddball (Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag"). I didn't catch any sound cues, but I also did not see any scenes that would have been enhanced by their addition.

The new generation of Off-Off has breathed some new life into what is something of an old format in the comedy world. Having seen a significant percentage of the Off-Off shows over the past two years, I'm somewhat jaded. However, I was pleasantly surprised with this show. Though each member of the cast has his or her own individual strengths, the whole is still greater than the sum of the parts.

Ramiro Castro, Jr. is always adding some oddball character to the mix, but in a way that fits perfectly. Lucy Wall always looks at home on stage, deftly anchoring the plot of the scenes. Rebecca Phillips and Leila Sales consistently add the proper spice that takes a scene to the next level. Dave Maher gives the strongest one-liners in the cast. And director John Lovejoy is simply one of the funniest people on the planet.

With all these stellar comedians on deck, you can't afford to miss Off-Off this quarter. Each Friday's installment of Pillow Fight Club starts at 9p.m. at the University Church, on the corner of 57th and University. Be sure to check it out-it's the feel good-hit of the summer!