There's so much to love about The Bearded Men. They're not bearded, but they are men, and they do world-class improvisational theater every week at HUGE Theater. In June, they performed at the Twin Cities Improv Festival, a four-day party featuring the best of local improv paired with nationally touring groups. Their set had everything I love about improv: heart, voice, physicality, and commitment, plus improvised lighting and sound design too.
Their set started with a suggestion from the audience (“a good suit”), and what's called a “movie” opening where they narrated the physical description of an old suit store. The centerpiece was a mysterious plaid suit, leading straight into a powerful opening scene. Tyler Michaels – locally known for strong performances in Illusion Theater's Bat Boy and Theater Latté Da's Spring Awakening – inhabited the role of the elderly shopkeeper. Joe Rapp played a customer down on his luck. The rest of the team created a series of hilarious failure-flashbacks, ranging from Rapp's character losing his job to getting his car hit with a ticket and an asteroid. Then, back at the suit store, Josh Kuehn in the tech booth dimmed the lights and raised the dramatic music, setting a foreboding tone for the story ahead.
Most of my work is as an improv teacher, coaxing students gently past their fears, trying not to trigger their amygdala as we navigate into unfamiliar territories. So when I get a chance to watch improv, I want to see troupes that are way past all that. I want to see troupes who are perfectly comfortable making big and bold choices or vulnerable and honest choices, as the show requires. I like when things get way out of hand – promises made that seem impossible to fulfill, characters in terrible trouble, demands on actors that seem insurmountable.
Fearless, silly, and sincere
The Bearded Men play with strong emotions even before they know what the emotions are. In the second scene, MJ Marsh started with the line, “I can't believe you asked this of me.” Matthew Pitner instantly became motherly without knowing what “this” meant. They didn't play for laughs. It was just lovely acting of a mother/son relationship, built by making assumption after assumption, learning that MJ was estranged from his brother, and Matthew was their kindly widowed mother.
Improvisational theater has the potential to visit so many lands – anywhere a scripted piece of theater can go, an unscripted piece can too. My personal preference is to see a piece with heart. As a former theater major, I'm always on the look-out for really good acting. Even if the characters are broad and the scenes are pithy, I like when big moments are given proper weight and performers let themselves be affected, as in the truly sweet mother/son relationship in this show.
In the third scene, The Bearded Men cut away to the brother's falling out—which became a fight scene with stage choreography reminiscent simultaneously of kabuki theater and the Three Stooges and demonstrated another place where the Bearded Men really shine. They have no qualms about using their bodies to create visual physical imagery.
There's a slang term in improv called “pimping” which means to force your scene partner to do something. Like, “Do that dance you always do, grandma!” Some schools will teach you that's a bad thing; you shouldn't “pimp” your partner. I feel differently because improvisers can do anything. There's no reason, as long as you're working from the basis of positivity, that you can't ask me to dance or levitate or explain quantum physics. Either I'll do it brilliantly and it will be funny, or I'll do it poorly and it will be funny. It's win-win.
First, Joe Rapp pimped his partners into lifting him by saying, “You don't know this move. I'm going to jump right over you.” As he climbed onto chairs to move toward MJ, Matthew and Tyler ran over to lift him and spin him over MJ and then back down to the ground (to thunderous applause). Then MJ lick-slapped Joe – proving how deftly the Bearded Men jump from sublime to silly. Tyler entered as their father, slapped them, then died of a heart attack in MJ's arms – the audience laughed in surprise because we had forgotten the detail of their father's death but the actors had not.
Physical and technical
I love when improv is this physical. Because improv involves a lot of mental processing, performers often send all their energy to their brain, stiffening their bodies. Additionally, not every improviser is trained in movement. When you see improvisers who understand that their bodies also tell the story, it's a delight.
As MJ and Matthew switched to narration about the shopkeeper becoming mystically younger and the shop seeming somehow newer, I was reminded that one common hallmark of the Bearded Men's style is elements of fantasy (even to the extent where they do an all D&D show). All the best improv groups have an aesthetic beyond “Hey, we all signed up for improv classes at the same time.” As you watch them perform, you understand why they're together. (I learned this the hard way. I coached a group in Chicago for an entire weekend and at the end, they did a show. As I watched it, I realized, “Oh. This isn't a six-person team, this is six one-person teams.”)
In a masterful tech moment, during a sudden reunion of mother and son, Josh Kuehn dimmed the lights to a red glow on just the two characters, and brought in a mournful brass-heavy orchestral piece while Joe suffocated his mother against his chest. This use of improvised lighting and sound design is an area in which Minneapolis is a national leader. Many cities eschew it altogether. Their technician's job is to bring up the lights, wait 20-60 minutes for the improvisers to work, then bring them back down. But in Minneapolis, the elegance of Butch Roy and other techs at the Brave New Workshop, HUGE Theater, and ComedySportz have lead to a tradition of magnificent moments of theatricality that “lights up, lights down” cannot provide.
As the drama neared its conclusion, the action cut back to the suit shop in quick succession. “Wait a minute, are you even here?” Joe asked the shopkeeper, and swung around to confront the apparition in slow motion, with a lighting change and a "whoosh" sound effect to illustrate the shopkeeper's complete conversion to an evil spirit.
The brothers staged a final showdown slap-fight, in which a powerful slap sends Joe spiraling offstage. As Joe died, Tyler personified the suit spiriting its way onto MJ. “I'm going to build this town up again fresh, I'm going to start new, and it's gonna rain justice” MJ says, quoting his brother, for the final line of the show. The audience screamed and applauded, satisfied with the completion of the narrative and return to the very beginning of the story.
While they created a performance with wit, drama, and creativity as good as any scripted drama, in improv there's almost nothing better than an almost-mistake made good. At one point, both Joe and MJ jumped out at the same time to play the main character. MJ quickly transformed into a panhandler. Joe gave him some change. The audience laughed because they were happy to see something that could have gone wrong turn into a little funny moment in the narrative. These little almost-mistakes in the midst of the Bearded Men’s almost-perfect performance give us a chance to celebrate that absolutely anything that happens is correct if we decide that it is.
Such is the nature of great improv.