February 3, 2004

Occam's Razor: comedy with sharp edges

Being that a best college bud of mine is in Occam's Razor, one of two improv groups on campus, I came to their most recent show with a bit of an ego. His presence gave me the confidence I needed to shout out all scene suggestions that came to mind. Worst of all, it gave me the false belief that my called-out suggestions would receive priority for scenes. OK, so maybe "vibrator" isn't the most usable object in a scene. And sure, "Champions on Ice" may not be the best suggestion for a setting, but was my friend's idea of "Crazyhorse" any better? For me, inner yearnings for a scene involving Brian Boitano were just too much to keep inside. The point is, though, that despite the multitude of ridiculous suggestions (since when was The Complete Works of Shakespeare a good murder weapon?) throughout the evening, Occam's came out on top. They proved their dexterity over and over again by mastering the suggestions thrown at them—a feat that is both challenging and rare.

Jesse Rosenthal (a.k.a. J-Ro) introduced the evening of comedy in the Bartlett Arts Rehearsal Space, explaining that several improv games would ensue. His comfort in front of the crowd set the tone for the evening. Being comfortable performing in front of peers would be a difficult task for many of us, but for improv kids it is required. The more comfortable they are, the more outrageous scenes can become. Jokes also flow more naturally in this environment. For Rosenthal, comfort is a non-issue and, consequently, his jokes venture into categories of clever and sharp rather than leveling off at silly or ridiculous. At one point in the show, a cast member asked the native Indian character Rosenthal was playing if he is Inuit. He replied, "Half and half not so into it."

Was it scripted? Did Rosenthal come up with it on the spot? The world may never know. What is apparent, though, is that he has this improv thing down. His decision to leave Occam's after this quarter to start a sketch comedy troupe á la The State or Super Troopers's Broken Lizard is disheartening, but also promising.

The first scenes of the show unfolded backwards through a story involving the aforementioned native American, a midget, his sister, and several other usual improv suspects. The plot lines and character development may not have been on par with Second City, but who is expecting that from full-time U of C students anyway? What we want is some mental comedy thrown in with some physical comedy. Thankfully, we can find a perfect mixture of these elements in troupe member Chuk Moran. When he's not working to integrate the various comedic scenes into a cohesive plot, he's acting out a perfect animatronic Mick Jagger. Using only his two allowed gestures (the rule of one game), he elicited a snort from the girl sitting behind me.

One of the remarkable characteristics of this improv troupe is that the girls, Tara Gladden and Kate Spelman, didn't resort to flighty ploys to get laughs. Oftentimes, improv troupers play stereotypical roles to make their scenes funny. Gladden and Spelman did indeed play female roles, being a minority among four boys, but they didn't resort to playing vampy porn stars, horny nuns, or whiny little girls. Instead, their facial expressions and clever plot-building schemes established their credibility. There was one exception to the rule, however. Playing "World's Worst"—a game in which each troupe member acts out the worst possible outcome of a suggestion from an audience—Tara stepped up from the line for "World's Worst Virginity Losing" and said, "Tell me when it's in" (but we're not going to harp on her for that).

Alex Stepick stepped up next and said, "Tell me when it's in," which exemplified what teamwork in Occam's Razor can produce. Features like Kyle Ormsby's perfect facial reactions (to walking in on your parents doing the nasty) combined with Stepick's insistence that a map isn't a map without a "You Are Here" triangle, added to the night of improvisational enjoyment. Occam's doesn't promise to have you falling off your chair. They do, however, promise to battle the chills of campus winter. After a couple of jokes about spandex and buffalo meat, I definitely felt warmer.

Occam's auditions will be held on the first floor of Cobb on Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m.