Tag Archives: new york

Long form improv with UCB

When I asked my improv teachers for recommendations of what to see in New York City, I immediately started hearing recommendations for Upright Citizens’ Brigade, a famous long-form improv company in Chelsea (they also have a theatre in San Francisco).Some of their shows are free (after lining up), and some have advance sales.  So I bought a ticket for an early show Sunday evening called ASSSCAT 3000.  That might stand for something but I haven’t figured out what yet.

UCB has their own theatre, and they have shows every night of the week.  When I got there, there was a line for people with reservations for the show, another line for people hoping to get in if some with resservations didn’t show, and yet another lineup (before 7 pm?) for the free 9:30 show.  And the people in line looked like the people who go to see improv in Edmonton, so I felt right at home.

The performance space is below ground level, and the ceiling is a bit low, but it is otherwise an excellent space to do shows with audience connection.  There are five rows of seats on three sides of a medium-size stage.  They sell pop, Pabst Blue Ribbon, more interesting beer, and the textbook for their improv classes.  (They apparently also sell t-shirts but they were sold out this week.)

The way ASSSCAT 300 works is that a guest monologist gets a word from the audience, then tells some stories provoked by that word, and then the troupe does several scenes inspired from that monologue.  After a while the monologist tells another story, they do more scenes, they have intermission, and they do it again.

The guest monologist for the show I saw was Scott Auckerman, a self-effacing charming man with a dry wit who is a leading light in the UCB Los Angeles company.  (Imagine if David Francey the Scottish-Canadian folksinger was doing improv.)  And the evening’s host, who also participated in the scenes, was Amy Poehler (who I know as Leslie from the TV show Parks and Recreation, but she’s also been on Saturday Night Live and other comedy things I think.  (Did I mention that I was in the second row?)  When she came out to start the show, lots of people cheered and squealed, and others whipped out their cameras but she made them shut off their cameras.  So I guess it was kind of a big deal to other people that she was there too.

It was a very funny show.  It was risque without being in poor taste.  Four of the seven improvisers were women.  I didn’t catch everyone’s name in the speedy introductions, but I particularly enjoyed Tami Sagher, Shannon O’Neill, and another fellow who said he was out of practice.  I think probably Anthony Atamaniuk, and Chad Carter were also performing.  There were stories about working as a Disneyland character, applying to homeschool/college and not getting in, having a lesbian foursome, trying to date when stuck with a not-cool friend, a Disney funeral, auditioning to be a princess, a restaurant specialising in last-dates, and other amusing scenarios.

I would definitely see them again.   I’ll link their website when I get back to a more familiar computer.

Casa Valentina, a new play by Harvey Fierstein

Casa Valentina opened this week after a few weeks of previews, at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club).  It’s been nominated for Best Play for the 2014 Tony Awards (the nominations came out a couple of days ago).

I saw it from the mezzanine, at a midweek matinee.  Many of the people sitting near me turned out to be very frequent Broadway theatregoers attending alone. “I just couldn’t live anywhere else!” “These plays would close if it weren’t for women in the audience, and women writing cheques!” Some of them had opera glasses like my grandmother’s.  They gave me lots of recommendations  and heads-ups about what else to see, where to sit for various performances, and so on.

Casa Valentina is set in 1962 at a rustic resort in the Catskills, a safe meetup spot for cross-dressing men to spend a weekend living as their “girls within”. The resort is run by George (Patrick Page) and his wife Rita (Mare Winningham, also nominated for a Tony).  George’s alter ego is Valentina.  During the play we hear that George and Rita’s marriage, the second for both, is unusual in that Rita not only knows about George’s cross-dressing but accepts it.  In an endearing scene early on, we see Rita (who runs a wig store too) helping George prepare for his transformation to Valentina to greet the guests.

The other visitors have families who don’t know or families who know but don’t accept.  The visiting activist who has served time in jail for cross-dressing (Reed Birney as Charlotte) urges them to go public, but also to improve their group’s chances of being accepted by signing affidavits to say that they are neither drag queens or homo-sexuals.  The anti-queer sentiments that he expresses assuming that they will be shared by the other characters had the 2014 audience gasping and hissing, until the line “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.” at which we all cracked up laughing.  Genius.

There was also lots of audible audience sentiment (but of the “awww” kind) directed towards Jonathon/Miranda (Gabriel Ebert), a young high school teacher making a first visit to the resort and a first outing in women’s clothing outside of the basement at home.  He explains that his wife found it hilarious when he tried on her wedding gown on their honeymoon, but he didn’t think she’d laugh more than once so he never told her or showed her again. And the transformation from Jonathan to Miranda when Miranda appears for dinner isn’t nearly as impressive as Miranda’s subsequent makeover with the help of the other characters, from an awkward ashamed young woman in shapeless dress and limp shoulder-length straight hair, to a delighted fashionable confident young woman and the centre of attention.

I loved the set design for this play.  It created the impression of an old-fashioned resort with weathered wood, porches and decks and lots of stairs.  It also created the impression of lots of cozy small rooms for the guests, using some shifting staircases, the hints of eaves, and lighting on four or five mismatched dressing tables in different corners (because of course the important thing about the bedrooms at this resort isn’t as places to sleep, but as places to get dressed up and made up).

This play is making me think about a different side of LGBTQ history, but also about how oppressed and threatened people can isolate themselves from other marginalised people in an attempt to be accepted, and why that’s problematic.



Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway

Book of Mormon was the only show I’m seeing on Broadway this trip that I’d already seen.  (I’d seen the touring production when it came to Toronto last spring.)  I loved it then and I loved it here. And I’ll definitely see the Broadway Across Canada production when it comes to Edmonton next season. The dancing was even better than I’d remembered and more of the songs had interesting choreography, even Hello! right at the start.  I was amused that the little bits of product placement in the Salt Lake City backdrop still included Tim Hortons (and I wondered whether this coffee shop chain is particularly successful in a city where lots of people don’t drink coffee).  Elder Kevin Price was Nic Rouleau, Elder Arnold Cunningham was Ben Platt, and Nabulungi was Syesha Mercado.  None of them were from the original cast but the show Playbill said that they’d all played or understudied in the roles elsewhere first.  All of them were good singers, actors, and dancers, and Nic Rouleau had a really great smile too.

I also figured something out which was probably obvious to everyone else who had seen the show before.  See, after I saw it in Toronto I looked at the headshots in my program book and realised the cast didn’t include any white women – but I remembered the scene with the missionaries’ mothers and fathers seeing them off at the airport, and the Mormon-history narrative with pioneer couples.  I couldn’t figure out whether some of the Black women in the cast had done those parts with wigs and I had just seen them as white, or what.  Well, this time I paid more attention – and the white men in the chorus of missionaries also play all the white women.

Again, I loved the staging and choreography of Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, for being terrifying, original, and pointedly ridiculous, all at the same time. The flamboyant / ironic choreography of the missionaries’ chorus numbers was also one of my favourite parts of the show.  Elder Cunningham’s names for Nabulungi definitely didn’t include Nanaimo Bar this time around, so that confirms my hypothesis from Toronto that the actor must have the freedom to improvise that a bit and change from show to show.

At the show I attended, there weren’t any real missionaries outside.  But as in Toronto at one of the Mirvish theatres, there were lots of souvenirs for sale, and lots of patrons who knew the show well.  And I’ll have to check my program from that production to be sure, but I think that possibly a few of the actors from the touring production that I saw might be in the Broadway cast now.  Otherwise, it’s unusual for me (with most of my theatregoing limited to Edmonton) to be seeing a good show without recognising any of the performers.  Perhaps that will change here too, since I hope this is not my last visit to Broadway.