As usual, there are lots of opportunities to experience improvisational theatre at the Edmonton Fringe. Edmonton has lots of improv performers and fans, and improv works well with Fringe audiences. And the way improv works is that you can never see all of it, because every performance is different.
This year I saw three long-form improv shows, Scratch, Rocket Sugar Factory, and Off Book the Musical. Long-form improv creates one (or more) coherent (more or less) narratives throughout the performance, and wraps them up by the end of the show. (Or else it leaves enough loose ends to make you come back for a sequel, as in the local improv soap-opera Die-Nasty.) As you can see from that attempt to define long-form, improvisational theatre starts with some rules or guidelines but doesn’t necessarily stick to them.
Rocket Sugar Factory is the company of Jim Libby and Jacob Banigan, North Americans who currently perform in Austria. I loved their show at last year’s Fringe so I made a point of fitting them in this year, and they didn’t disappoint me. They started by getting suggestions from different sections of the audience – starting with audience suggestions is one of the improv traditions. The performers built affectionate rapport while collecting suggestions in the intimate setting of the Walterdale Theatre, and because their separate conversations were simultaneous the result ended up more of a surprise. In the show I saw, they concocted a horror tale (which was more of a classic ghost story) set in 19th century England. Both performers made effective use of accents and body language to distinguish among their characters and delight the audience. They switched roles frequently, occasionally confusing me but mostly following each other’s lead to build a funny creepy story. Jim Libby’s occasional corpsing (falling out of character momentarily to laugh at what was going on) did not detract from the audience’s amusement and illustrated that they were having fun. Rocket Sugar Factory has one more show, tonight at 6:30 pm.
Scratch is the show of Arlen Konopaki and Kevin Gillese, both of them Rapid Fire Theatre alumni who are currently working (separately) in the USA. It’s playing at the Princess Theatre, to packed houses of fans. The theatre isn’t an ideal venue, because it’s long and narrow, making it hard for the performers to hear audience suggestions. Both of them wear cordless mics during the show, and they were easy to hear thanks to tech Cadence Konopaki. Their style is very physical, and I could see that the mics were inconveniencing them, though. In the show I saw, very physical included climbing Mount Everest, flying around as Game of Thrones dragons, playing piano, lumbering around as a yeti, and a lot of admirably athletic simulated sex. Like the performers of Rocket Sugar Factory, it’s clear that Arlen and Kevin have been playing together for a long time, the way that they pick up each other’s cues, switching roles seamlessly and spinning around to signal a transition into another scene or set of characters. In Scratch, most of the show had scenes alternating among three separate stories, with some fitting together at the end. Scratch plays tonight at 10 and tomorrow at 3.
Off Book is a completely improvised musical-theatre performance. It’s a Rapid Fire production at the Yardbird Suite, which seems to be a great venue for performers although it is probably visually a bit unsatisfying for people sitting at the back since there aren’t any risers. The acoustics are good though.
Rapid Fire Theatre hosts Off-Book performances sometimes as part of their regular season long-form improv offerings on Saturday nights, so if you enjoy this show you can watch the Rapid Fire website and Facebook group to see when you can see more. The troupe is led by Matt Alden, and accompaniment is provided by the talented Joel Crichton on keyboard. Other performers in the show I saw were Amy Shostak, Joleen Ballendine, Kory Mathewson, David Walker, Vince Fortier, and I think Jocelyn Ahlf. Starting from the audience suggestion of a graveyard as location, they generated all the tropes of musical theatre from a catchy ensemble opening number “It’s a great day to be dead!” to a romantic plot with supporting sidekicks, impeccable rhymes, occasional dance numbers, harmonising two musical themes, a deathbed solo, and a tidy ending recalling the melodies explored earlier. I thought that the performance I saw was particularly strong, and I thought that the venue was more conducive to appreciating the nuances of the lyrics than Rapid Fire’s usual space in Zeidler Hall at the Citadel. Off Book plays today at 2:30, but is probably sold out.