Improv can be deadly; when it's bad, it's horrid. Good thing Comedy Sports is alive and well and living it up downstairs at the Wynkoop Brewing Company.
After ten years and 1,900 performances (making it the longest-running show in Denver), the ensemble group has developed a distinctive persona. The performers all come from the theater tradition rather than from stand-up, they keep their material squeaky-clean so the show is suitable for the whole family, and they seem to know each other well enough to jump each other's cues and read each other's minds.
The latest incarnation of the show begins when the house lights dim and the stage lights go nuts, suggesting a Star Trek-styled alien arrival. The performers leap on stage in black T-shirts and sweatpants. The referee--an emcee of sorts who oversees a variety of improvisational games set up as team competitions--introduces them and then explains how the penalties work. Even an audience member may be chastised for uttering off-color commands. At one point, when asked for an object smaller than a breadbox, a guy who apparently was having an especially good time that night shouted "tits" and promptly had a brown bag placed over his head, to general hilarity. No one ever yelled a questionable command again.
There are two teams with two players each, and the wild card in the mix is the "jokester," a performer who plays on both teams if they need the help and also serves as the butt of jokes from time to time. In one game, for example, the jokester leaves the room and the audience supplies characters, situations and activities that each team then must get the jokester to perform--without using words. If the jokester guesses right (one memorable example: "I'm changing Bob Dole's diaper on the top of the Eiffel Tower"), the team gets a point. Think of it as a more complicated--and audience-friendly--version of charades.
In a game called the "Three Act Play," one team performs an impromptu play and the audience picks a playwright whose work it most resembles (in this case, Arthur Miller) and an appropriate title ("Runny Soap"). The second team performs another theater sport; the night I saw it, it was "Instant Replay." The audience decides the situation (an astronaut about to take off) and a member of the opposing team shouts out "replay" or "forward." The actors then have to repeat the action in reverse or go forward with the story. As the action gets more complicated, going backward gets more hilarious. The designated judges, selected from the audience, then pick a winner.
The back of the stage is set with a variety of costumes and wigs, which the players use freely. The ref keeps the action moving or stops it when it begins to get tiresome (a helpful device a few of the city's other theater troupes might want to consider). Each of the games is speedily performed and brief enough to keep even an audience with a short attention span awake and involved.
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There are fourteen cast members in all, so a different group may perform on any given night. John Bauers and Susan Knudten started the whole thing back in 1986 and, not surprisingly, are two of the most skilled at the games. Bauers was particularly awe-inspiring in the "Instant Replay" game. But all of the actors spin on a dime into new characterizations. They're obviously capable of straight theatrical performance but also have a relaxed, believable comic presence.
This kind of casual comedy is pretty much meaning-free, of course, but the audience does get to let off a little political steam (the concept of Bob Dole in diapers came directly from the peanut gallery), and the actors enjoy getting in a gibe when they can. The fun, though, lies mostly in the interaction between audience and performers--in seeing the cast members extricate themselves from tough spots and, most important, seeing them think on their feet as they respond comically to every bizarre, or banal, suggestion the audience can make.
Comedy Sports of Denver, in an open-ended run at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, 1634 18th Street, 297-2111.