Even though it’s been confirmed by reliable sources ranging from Fred Armisen to Buzzfeed to whatever RealtyTrac is, convincing outlanders of Minnesota’s hipster cred is not an easy battle. My friends on the coasts still seem to abide by the notion that Minnesota is a Garrison Keillor sketch writ large, with occasional pockets of Prince thrown in for pizzazz. Obviously, New Yorkers are gonna New York, but as a counterpoint I’ll note that I spent last Saturday night at HUGE Theater watching a recurring weekly long-form improv comedy show presented in the style of a Wes Anderson movie.
As it happened, Yes Anderson’s The Life Impromptu was just one of three pop-culture improv parodies playing within a three-block radius Saturday night. We’ve recently seen a groundswell of ambitious allusion on local improv stages, including Burnt Nightingale’s Manners and Misconduct: Jane Austen Unscripted at Bryant Lake Bowl and Clue: The Improvised Murder Mystery at HUGE. Besides having possibly the best pun-based company name in town, Yes Anderson was tackling the most specific and fastidious source material of the three, so that’s where I directed most of my attention.
If you’re unfamiliar with the workings of Wes Anderson, he’s known as one of the more idiosyncratic film directors of our time. His movies are broadly characterized by, among other things, complex familial relationships, fastidious set decoration, precise dialogue, bright colors, everyday clothing worn as uniforms and vice versa, low-key humor and general twee atmosphere. Or to put it in the heavily Minnesota-accented words of the woman behind me at the Lagoon after I first saw The Royal Tenenbaums, “Well, was that ever quirky!”
I’ll preface my review by saying I don’t always have a lot of patience for reference-heavy comedy. Every year it seems like roughly a third of the Fringe Festival lineup is made up of amusing pop culture mash-ups or irreverant takes on well-known properties, most of which have trouble justifying their existence beyond their recognizable references. There’s a difference between replicating the rhythms of a piece of art and building off of it to create something that stands on its own. My concern going in to The Life Impromptu was that it would be the kind of show content to leave the audience chuckling softly and saying, “Yep, that’s pretty much what would happen in a Wes Anderson movie.”
As it turns out, Yes Anderson is indeed extraordinarily adept at replicating the unique feel of a Wes Anderson production, but they bring a lot more to the show than imitation. Starting with a title suggested by the audience - Saturday’s was “The Pessimistic Acrobat,” which, were I to quibble, sounds more like a Wes Anderson concept than a Wes Anderson title - the company quickly establishes characters and begins building a narrative.
The actors are all decked out in vintage apparel distinctive enough to be identifiably Andersonian without limiting their character options (no one wears a Grand Budapest Hotel-style bellhop’s outfit, for instance). A big part of the fun of improv is watching actors figure out each other’s characters and how each one interacts with the others. The Life Impromptu formula makes that process especially intriguing, as character traits are revealed not only through the actors’ interactions, but also by an omniscient narrator who chimes in at opportune moments to flesh out the backstory and give the performers new wrinkles to iron out.
Where a lot of improv finds the characters reacting to a setting or a situation, or bouncing off each other’s defining quirks, the Yes Anderson format allows the cast to build relationships that feel genuine and lived-in. The individual characterizations remain consistent, but every pairing produces a markedly different dynamic. It actually feels like these characters have lives and histories beyond the HUGE stage, which makes it strangely poignant to know that they’ll exist only for the hour or so you’re spending in their presence.
A raggedy traveling circus
A big part of that is the cast’s intimate understanding of Wes Anderson. Parodic material often allows for broad strokes and loose templates. The concurrently running Clue, for instance, is quite a good show in its own right, but the more malleable murder mystery concept and episodic, room-by-room story structure gives the actors more freedom to spin off the rails. Yes Anderson is committed to capturing the essence of a very specific kind of narrative, and “The Pessimistic Acrobat” hits almost all of the marks.
The story of a raggedy traveling circus populated by lovably prickly weirdos is right up Wes Anderson’s alley: The performing animals are actually humans in elaborate costumes, the star acrobat lusts for a boring office job with maximal paperwork, the bearded lady pines after the danger-loving motorcycle stunt man while their sibling understudies yearn to step into the spotlight, and it’s all accompanied by an appropriately mannerly live piano score.
Not only does the narrative cohere to the source material, the players have an uncanny flair for Andersonian quirkiness. For instance, Michael Blomberg’s Slavic-accented acrobat’s penchant for hiding out in other people’s armoires begins as a cover-up for a brief miscommunication but develops into a running gag that figures heavily into the story’s resolution.
Capturing Anderson's directorial style
Physically recreating the director’s signature fussy set decoration would be anathema to improv, so the company compensates by providing detailed verbal descriptions of the imagined rooms, accoutrements and even camera angles. The descriptions are vivid and specific enough that thinking back it’s easy to forget that Katie Vanelli’s moribund circus owner wasn’t really sitting in front of a tent wall decorated with a tremendous portrait of herself, or that the massive monolith Kevin Albertson’s wry mechanic built to advertise the circus was never really on stage.
The company even manages to capture Anderson’s trick of cutting away to miniatures and animation rather than filming an elaborate action sequence. Several scenes of acrobatic maneuvers and motorcycle stunts play out as finger-puppet shows, an ingenious way for the company to incorporate big action set pieces on a small stage while remaining true to its mission statement.
All of this might sound a little inside-baseball, and I’ll admit that as a dedicated fan of Wes Anderson’s movies I can’t say for sure how well a show like “The Pessimistic Acrobat” would translate to viewers less familiar with his work. An uninitiated audience might not get what’s so specifically funny about Kristen Anne Pichette’s religious devotion to beard oil, for instance, but most of the material is universally appealing enough that they’ll have a grand time of it anyway. Parodies and references aside, Yes Anderson is extremely skilled at improvising a coherent, propulsive story that’s also funny as hell. You don’t have to know Wes Anderson from Loni Anderson to appreciate that.
So yeah, you want Minnesota hipster cred? You can’t ask for much better than this. Your move, Williamsburg.