In five hours at HUGE Theater I was introduced to a criminal mastermind operating out of a Cub Foods meat department, a jaded time-traveler/schoolteacher, a rural woman bent on moving to the city to become a snake, a little girl who funnels personal tragedy into horse-racing, two men with conjoined bellybuttons,rival news anchors finding love in the apocalypse, a neighborhood with a thriving knife-fight industry, and Israeli basketball legend Duane Rodman. If you’d like to meet all of these characters for yourself, that’s too damn bad, because they exist only in the bubble of Thursday night.
The exhilaration of seeing well-done improv is always laced with a tinge of regret, knowing that the particular experience you’ve just had can’t be replicated or shared with friends. On the other hand, when you’re seeing performers who really know their stuff, you can be reasonably confident that you’re going to see something of comparable quality any time you come out to the show. There’s maybe no better evidence of that on the local scene than the Twin Cities Improv Festival. Now in its 11th year, TCIF provides a showcase for the cream of Minnesota’s long-form improv crop, with a few slots reserved for visiting dignitaries as well. It’s a high-energy, fast-paced event that can border on exhausting, and also an excellent illustration of how disparate the world of improv can be.
Almost by accident, Thursday’s opening duo, Cross/Weaving, wound up exemplifying the spirit of improvised theater better than anyone could have anticipated. Andy Hilbrands recently relocated to Brooklyn but intended to rejoin comedy partner M.J. Marsh on the HUGE stage for their spy-movie inspired signature show. That plan was derailed when Hilbrands landed a role in an off-Broadway production, so the pair simply retooled their approach and had Hilbrands perform via a video conference from his New York apartment. The result was arguably even more effective than the original concept, with Marsh playing a grizzled secret agent doing spy stuff at the local grocery store while Hilbrands - playing an agency head, a cocky tech wizard, and a criminal mastermind - dispensed orders from a video screen over the stage. While the duo’s easy repartee would have been plenty funny no matter the circumstance, having Hilbrands’ deadpan visage looming over the stage added an extra level of visual comedy and opened the door for great sight gags like quick costume changes and incorporating his cat as a prop. The video conferencing wasn’t without its hiccups, but that only amplified the in-the-moment riskiness that’s such a big part of the appeal of improv.
The evening’s next duo, About Time, pushed things in a very different direction. In fact, Casey Haeg and Kenny Pierce may have been the most unorthodox performers of the night, albeit in quite a subtle way. Starting from an audience suggestion of a familiar relationship - “rhythm and blues,” in this case - the pair built a low-key, occasionally poignant story of an urban couple buying a house in the country and slowly growing to recognize their differences while simultaneously going mad. Interspersing their interactions with expositional soliloquies, Haeg and Pierce crafted a world that’s a long way off from the stereotype of improv being all about crazy characters and wacky situations. That isn’t to say About Time’s set lacked for weirdness - at one point Haeg believed her skin was falling off as she transformed into a snake-woman, for instance - but on the whole this was a fascinating illustration of keeping things fast and funny while also subverting expectations of what long-form improv is all about.
Voices of experience
The venerable Bearded Men Improv, on the other hand, is almost exactly what the uninitiated observer likely assumes an improv show will be: five white guys bouncing around a stage flailing their arms and doing funny voices. But they’re also exceptionally good at what they do. Taking their cue from the audience suggestion of “horseshoe,” the Bearded Men launched into a tragicomic tale of a young girl surviving a barn fire that killed her sister and father and committing herself to memorializing them by winning the big horse race. Like most of the best larger improv teams, the Bearded Men are all utility players, equally adept at taking the lead role or slipping into a variety of supporting players. Watching them figure out who they are in relation to one another is one of the most entertaining parts of the act, followed closely by watching them force each other into corners and battle their way out. When Joe Rapp’s carnival vendor refuses to break a twenty, for instance, Lucas Vonasek is forced to purchase an absurd amount of food, which leads Vonasek to coin the phrase “bouquet of corn dogs.” It’s a confident, charismatic show that would make an excellent introduction for improv naysayers.
Speaking of naysayers, I had my doubts coming into Here: The Musical, the evening’s sole non-Minnesotan engagement. Chicago duo Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzutto have a big reputation and an international resume, having performed the show in 18 countries, but improvised singing is a notoriously tricky thing to pull off. My worries were unfounded, as Here proved to be a masterful performance that defied all sorts of expectations. Accompanied by resident HUGE musician Jack Barrett, who provided music for several of Thursday’s sets, DeFrancisco and Rizzutto reeled off a genre-hopping vocal extravaganza about, among other things, parenting, loneliness, fishing, stagnation, and the disconnect between traditional education models and the reality of the social media era. Throughout their mini-opera, the duo displayed amazing timing, surprising insight, and an incredible ability to rhyme on the fly, all in spite of DeFrancisco being in visible pain from a recent knee injury. It’s a singular show that earned the night’s only standing ovation.
Loosening up and ending strong
The second half of Thursday felt a bit more like a regular night of shows at HUGE. As the crowd thinned out a bit, the atmosphere got noticeably looser, a shift that benefited the teams who closed out the evening. The Jorts! quartet exchanged personal anecdotes about turn-of-the-century collectibles like Beanie Babies and Pokemon cards, then spun off into a goofy, reference-heavy series of scenes full of callbacks and over-the-top characters that crackled with sketch-show energy. Horseface pushed things into even stranger territory with a free-associating set that ranked as the most surreal of the evening. With Janelle Blasdel acting as the unflappable agent provocateur, the trio made great use of the small stage, taking full advantage of HUGE’s signature black doorway in vignettes about lilting-voiced bus riders, young witches, lonely HAM radio enthusiasts, and short-tempered horse doctors.
The final set of the night played to a surprisingly sizable audience, considering its 11 p.m. start time, and carried on the spirit of free-flowing goofiness. Ladyfriend kept the energy high with a buoyant string of scenes that maintained an infectiously optimistic energy even when the material turned dark. The trio’s innate understanding of each other’s comic rhythms was especially evident in their final scene, as Becky Wilkinson-Hauser and Beth Gibbs’s dueling newscasters interrupted a report on the in-progress apocalypse to declare their love for one another as Jen Van Kaam gamely attempted to carry on with a weather report. Thursday’s last performance benefited from the night’s most compelling audience suggestion, from a woman who gave Shrieking Harpies an anecdote about teaching adults to adapt to the onset of blindness. That story blossomed into a musical adventure about an irascible elder wandering into his city’s “Knife District” and becoming the unexpected mentor to a little boy building a race car. Anchored by Taj Ruler’s endearingly angry old man, Shrieking Harpies’ set closed out the night on a charming, boisterous, and slightly melancholy note that made a swell capper on a five-hour run of accomplished improv, a showcase of not just the depth of the local talent pool, but the breadth of the art form itself..
What: Twin Cities Improv Festival
When: June 21 - 25
Where: HUGE Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
How much: $8 - $18