At Mobtown Theater Through March 17
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“Improv comedy” brings to mind short sketches fueled by silly props and audience suggestions. The Baltimore Improv Group’s current production, Unscripted, has all of these attributes, but it is also full of real drama and talented actors who create a new play filled with rich characters and complete story lines each time they take the stage.
The concept behind Unscripted is a creative one. At the opening of the play, director Prescott Gaylord explains that he will be controlling lighting and music by giving hand signals from just offstage. He collects any props brought in by the audience—a recent evening’s crop included a knee brace, a plastic trophy, and swim goggles—and asks someone to shout out a big change that happened to them over the previous year.
“Moving!” a woman offers. Gaylord asks for details; she explains that she has moved out of her mother’s house with her daughter and into their own place in Baltimore. “How does it feel?” “It feels awesome, and overwhelming.” He asks where she would move if she could pick anywhere in the world. “The Poconos,” she responds, eliciting some giggles from the audience.
And so the play begins, our initial plot and basic characters set. The performers and a stagehand set up chairs, a table, and a bottle of wine, and two actors take center stage. They begin to sort out a plot: Bethany (Bridget Cavaiola) and her daughter Megan-Rose (Emily Franzwa) have moved to the Poconos to escape Bethany’s drunk and abusive lover George (Fred Lohr). As they’re talking, another performer walks out and straps the knee brace to Bethany’s leg. In response, the pair creates a story involving a piano-related knee injury.
This is how the show goes. When the director senses a scene has come to its end, he signals for the stage crew to lower the lights and raise the music so sets can be rearranged and new actors can take the stage. As the actors are talking and moving about, their fellow improvisers drape them in clothing or hand them something to hold or place a prop next to them on the ground, and they must figure out how to incorporate it into the scene. All of the actors start out wearing plain black; when we first meet Bethany’s lover George someone brings out a worn leather vest and a cowboy hat for him to wear, and so Lohr must play the sort of George who would wear such an outfit.
Once George finds out that Bethany has fled, he and his friend Paul (Jason Braswell) set out to find her. Paul is given a blue Hawaiian button-down and develops into a puppy-dog character, a sweetheart who follows George around in lieu of actually living his own life. Soon the two are on the road, and in an expert bit of subtle physical comedy, Braswell, sleeping in the passenger’s seat, lets his mouth hang open like a fool and slowly starts to collapse onto George’s shoulder while he drives. When he wakes up, the two discuss Paul’s romantic chances with Megan-Rose, and just as George is suggesting that there’s no reason she wouldn’t be interested, Braswell distorts his face into a gaping, empty-headed yawn, drawing as many laughs as any verbal joke might have.
Which is saying a lot. A recent evening was consistently funny; the audience, including this writer, was nearly rolling in the aisles for the show’s two-hour run. But the performance was also surprisingly nuanced and complex. There were moments of intensity, particularly between George and Megan, that made you forget these lines had never been rehearsed. (The BIG web site explains that cast members “have been rehearsing play genres and story arcs” but there was no way they could have known the exact plot ahead of time.) And Gaylord does an excellent job of guiding the action, with an intuitive sense for when the characters onstage have reached the end of their scene.
Unscripted provides a unique chance for an audience to see and understand the creation of a play. Because there are no worries about flubbing lines or missing cues, much of the pressure associated with live theater seems to disappear, with actors often laughing along with the audience at a fumbled line or an awkward joke. And because it’s entirely improvised, one could return night after night and see a different show. Though there’s no knowing what to expect, we suspect it will continue to be worth it.