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Fringe Festival Day 7: the audience participates in improv

Sep 19, 2018

Unleashed Improv!
Credit Jeff Spevak

On a day where millions of Americans were frantically Googling “Mario Kart,” Unleashed! Improv was reminding its audience on Day Seven of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival that walking in on your parents while they’re having sex is comedy gold.

The idea behind the Rochester improv group’s show Tuesday at Blackfriars Theatre was close to brilliant. As they walk in the door at Blackfriars Theatre, audience members are asked to write, anonymously, on a slip of paper secrets about themselves. The improv group then draws these confessions from a fishbowl to create a story. Usually two of the comedians started off, then another member or two would leap into the fray, tag-team style. Or two members of the troupe were sent offstage for a moment so that they couldn’t hear what secret the other had drawn, then they had to act out their separate secrets, guessing what darkness the other was concealing. 

Unleashed! Improv is Kerry Young, Dan Hart, Jeff Sivda, Abby DeVuyst, Kenn Klumm, Patti Lewis and Curtis Larzelere. And this improv business can be tricky. The group is also behind the popular “Other People’s Shows,” in which they act out other people’s Rochester Fringe shows based on the description in the festival guide. But not all shows are inherently funny. When, during a rehearsal with another fringe festival’s guide, the show to be lampooned turned out to be about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Klumm says the group played it straight: The weight of that event speaks soberly for itself.

Monday night, did any audience members confess to murder? Disappointingly, no. But during the course of the hour-long show the inspirational embarrassments included:

My Mother is from West Virginia.

I drunk made-out with my prom date.

As a teen, I stole lots of stuff.

I have a foot fetish.

I often play Bulls*** Bingo during work meetings and they actually think I’m taking notes.

I left my house when I was 15 to play strip foosball.

I got so mad at my brother, I used his toothbrush to clean the hamster cage.

My father spent the night with Beau Bridges.

My mother found my porn stash and I blamed it on my brother.

I cheated on a French test in high school.

I hoard towels.

I have a mistress.

I walked in on my parents having sex.

It’s the audience that is wickedly funny, and honest. It’s up to the quick-witted Unleashed! Improv to stitch these confessions into stories that make sense. A confession that an audience member dances naked every Sunday morning drew a plea to close his drapes because, “I had to give CPR to my mother-in-law for 25 minutes.”

Mothers are a go-to target. When it was revealed that someone’s mother had a drawer full of whips and vibrators, that confession was converted into a commentary on the Catholic Church, with Lewis as a nun defending her sex toy as “a prayer aid.” So religion as well took a big hit from Unleashed! Improv.

Indeed, Unleashed! Improv has no inhibitions against kicking a major world religion when it’s down and out in the news. And anyone losing control of their Seinfeldian “master of their domain” was reminded by Klemm that, “There is no such thing as private time with God.”

Nor was Unleashed! Improv afraid to ask the big theological questions. “I was just talking to Mary and Joseph,” Hart said, “and they told me some disturbing news. Am I adopted?”

A cat-atonic family 

Sara Moore and Joanna Brokaw of Fringe Gardens
Credit Jeff Spevak

“Who would have thought there would be so many cats in heaven?” asks Bitsy McNuggers in the opening moments of Fringe Gardens. But she’s not dead, she’s just awakened from a 19-year coma and is still in her cluttered home, which she shares with the cats and her daughter, Chastity McNuggers.  

The 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, about a reclusive mother and daughter living in a decrepit mansion in East Hampton, New York, has inspired many, many versions of the tale, including an award-winning 2006 Broadway musical and a 2009 HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Sara Moore and Joanne Brokaw – a comedy duo known as A Happy Accident – are similarly intrigued by this true story.

Moore and Brokaw are the hosts of Ask Us Anything?, the booth in the Spiegelgarden where, from 7 to 9 p.m. daily, you can ask them anything. And they’ll answer, no charge. Tuesday in the Avyarium, a small venue in the Village Gate, they took time off from directing other people’s lives to present their take on the cat-atonic recluses of Fringe Gardens. It bears little resemblance to Grey Gardens, with its fleeting pop references to Gilligan’s Island and Lavern & Shirley, nods to 21st-century inventions such as internet dating and Bitsy asking, “Who’s president now, Al Gore?” No, but babies have cell phones, Chastity says.

There is a story here. “You gave up everything to take care of me,” Bitsy says to her daughter. But that gets lost in the detritus that accumulates over two decades. “This is all we have left,” Bitsy says, “this life raft of crap.”

Fringe Gardens will also be presented at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Fringe Day Eight

Check rochesterfringe.com for a complete schedule and tickets. A few selections coming up Wednesday:

Shotspeare, 9:15 p.m., Spiegeltent. The Rochester Fringe debut of the Shakespeare drinking game, created by Matt Morgan and Heidi Brucker Morgan, the couple behind Cirque du Fringe: Sideshow. The show comes with words guaranteeing a surefire hit: “…contains adult subject matter and is unsuitable for children.” The bard also hits the bar at 9:15 p.m. the rest of the fest.

The Spyglass Seven, 5 p.m., School of the Arts: Black Box Theatre. Long-dead poet and writer of gloom, Edgar Allen Poe, is resurrected for one night, and the opportunity to find love. Last year Michael Seebold’s award-winning play made its off-Broadway debut, predictably, on Halloween. It plays Rochester Fringe again on Saturday.

Truly Divine, 9 p.m., School of the Arts: Ensemble Theatre. Ginger Minaj, from RuPaul’s Drag Race, stars in this show, a world premiere, about the life of the legendary drag queen, using music written by Divine. Truly Divine continues nightly.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI and Rochester-based writer, is reporting on the Fringe Festival daily at wxxinews.org. His web site is jeffspevak.com.