I guess basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The cellar of the Wynkoop Brewing Co., where Impulse Theater performs, is crowded, loud and energetic. Impulse does no prepared skits, nothing but pure improv -- which means that what you see changes every night, and so does the team of actors. The company has a roster of fourteen; when I attended, the performers were Adrian Guillermo Sebastian Holguin, Garrett Gilhooly, Mike "Vic" Milbrath, Jeff Parker and Jared Crain.
In case there's anyone out there who has never attended an improvisational performance, this is how it goes: The actors set up and follow certain rules that are frameworks for the scenes; they rely on audience suggestions to get these scenes going or to vary the action.
Your level of enjoyment depends a lot on whether or not you like the players. Charm is a factor, and so is the ability to take risks. Fortunately, the performers I saw were clever and fast on their feet -- willing to throw themselves into the action, but never betraying tension or anxiety, and perfectly content to shrug off a piece that wasn't coming together. The show was funny when the actors hit a groove, but equally funny when they got stymied. So in a way, neither the improvisers nor the audience can lose.
Although they've doubtless rehearsed and performed many times together, the actors are walking a tightrope. Still, they must sometimes find themselves re-utilizing lines or actions. There's also a certain predictability to the audience suggestions. If you ask people to name a profession that requires a fair amount of education, you can pretty much bet you'll get "lawyer" or "doctor." Surprisingly, the group's lawyer jokes weren't particularly amusing, nor was a brief series on airline pilots.
In John Cleese's video How to Irritate People, two pilots bark terse commands that imply their plane is about to crash, then giggle as terrified passengers throw themselves out the windows. You wouldn't get anything this savage from most comics; we tend to like our humor a bit cuddlier. Politics is pretty much verboten in Denver venues, and Impulse emcee Parker warned the audience against smutty language. This cautiousness does take some edge off the comedy, but you can see the reasoning behind Parker's prohibition. A basement full of happy drunks yelling obscenities wouldn't be very funny.
One of the best improvisations involved an expert speaking about volcanoes. As Jared Crain delivered a learned discourse, another actor, standing behind him, provided his gestures. Crain's struggles to keep his dignity and find convincingly erudite language to accompany gestures that were erratic, frenzied and eccentric were hilarious.
For another piece, the audience was asked for an aphorism and came up with "You'll poke your eye out." (Okay, they'd had a few drinks.) Then Parker requested a song lyric and got "Oops...I did it again." Three of the actors were in on this discussion, but a fourth, Milbrath, remained out of the loop. The trick was for the in-the-know actors to get Milbrath to utter the two phrases -- a little like charades, only harder. It was fascinating to watch the demented maneuverings as Crain, Holguin and Gilhooly threw dialogue at a wonderfully befuddled Milbrath and he hopefully tried truism after truism -- "A woman's place is in the kitchen?" -- before finally, and to much applause, coming up with the required phrases.
Holguin and Gilhooly became teenage nerds staging a slide show on the topic of ghosts. As they clicked an imaginary changer, there'd be a blackout, the lights would rise and another cast member would appear, absurdly posed and wearing one of a variety of wigs and costumes. Holguin and Gilhooly had to provide commentary for each vignette. Both came up with good lines: "We thought heaven would be a lot more intellectual"; "It's like not believing in dragons."
Crain distinguished himself in a Shakespearean improvisation about a pharmacist stealing drugs for his addicted wife. "The great ax of decision," he intoned threateningly, "comes swinging down upon the harsh wooden block."
All of the actors have expressive bodies, and each is very different. Holguin is outwardly placid but percolating with insane insights; Gilhooly throws herself willingly into the goofiest proceedings; Milbrath sports an impish, dimpled grin that often seems to be commenting ironically on his own actions; and Crain is elastic-limbed and fast of speech. Meanwhile, Parker runs the evening with aplomb and light-handed authority.
You're being entertained, but you're also part of the show, and it all makes for lively entertainment.
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