I’ve longed for this day, my friends—the day when I’d get to see an improv show full of spectacle. That day has arrived. But first…
I’ve decried the lack of spectacle in improv on this blog and in various post-show chit-chats. My argument goes something like this:
The vast majority of improv shows are two people onstage, in their regular clothes (hello, plaid shirt!) talking at each other. There’s not enough pizzaz, not enough novel staging, not enough costuming, not enough creativity in how we “theatrical-ize” the improv experience for the audience. And I get it. I understand why there’s not more of that stuff—because it’s fucking hard to do. How do we “improvise” a choreographed dance number? How do you know which wigs to have available if you don’t know which characters you’ll be playing that night? It’s hard, maybe even impossible. But that doesn’t mean it still can’t bum me out. Why should Cirque de Soleil or Broadway have all the big-budget fun, while we’re relegated to two worn-out chairs and a simple white light?
Of course I’m generalizing. Some recent productions have focused on bringing something unique to improv production—The Suitcase at The Institution Theater, Fandom at The Hideout, and Girls Girls Girls are always aiming at giving the audience a Broadway-style experience. And Austin is an entrepreneurial town: More and more theaters will attempt to do this. (Keep an eye out for the upcoming Edward Gorey show at The Hideout, for example.)
But the latest mainstage production at ColdTowne Theater, Indy Movies, has set the new standard for pizzaz in a (mostly) improvised show.
Indy Movies begins with famous Hollywood director Wade Wood (played with creepy effect by the excellent Lance Gilstrap) planning his newest big-budget adventure flick. Thanks to a bowl of suggestions of “states other than Indiana” written by the audience before the show, Wood is able to name his newest hero—in this case, Mississippi Jones.
We then see Mississippi Jones and his sidekick, played with relentless commitment by Katie Moore, in the middle of their latest daring mission. Mississippi is definitely the protagonist and is portrayed by Kyle Sweeney with the same detached, wry sense of confusion and amazement that endeared Harrison Ford to us in the mid-80s.
When Mississippi finally nabs the idol he came into the cave to nab, a gigantic cardboard boulder is loosened and rolls toward him.
Let me restate that: a gigantic cardboard boulder chases him down.
Oh, and when Indy attempts to leap across a chasm, a “stunt coordinator” dressed in all black emerges from the sidelines to literally pick him up and carry him across the gap.
Oh, and when a couple of tribesmen attempt to corner Mississippi, they get stabbed and blood begins spilling from their guts.
Oh, and when the Nazi commander (played with charming nonchalance by Seth Johnson) finally gets his hands on one of Mississippi’s idols, it strikes a curse on him and his face begins to melt.
And when one character’s heart is ripped from his chest, the heart begins spewing blood all over the fucking place. And then another character is shot in the head and blood goes flying across the back wall. And then the boulder shows up again. And there’s a mine car. And and and. And…
Make no mistake, everything I’ve mentioned is real. These aren’t “object work exercises.” There’s an actual heart prop. There is actual fake blood—tons of it. There are idols and fake pistols and spears and fist fights and a whip lashed around one of the pipes running along the ceiling. There are natives in grass skirts. There is some cross-dressing. There is a romance and a crazy Nazi sidekick. There’s everything Spielberg would have—-only, it’s done with about 1/1,000,000,000th of the budget.
The remainder of the show bounces between Wade Wood describing the movie he’s planning (and growing ever more maniacal and violent) and the mis-adventures of Mississippi Jones as he attempts to … do something? Save something? I wasn’t ever super clear on what our hero’s mission was. But I didn’t much care, because it was drawing on my love for the original Indiana Jones trilogy, and it was performed with such abandon and aplomb that I was entranced.
Indy Movies also illustrates the challenge that comes with adding in production value to an improv show: balance. How do you incorporate a host of special effects and physical moves while still protecting the spirit of improvisation? It’s difficult, and director Cody Dearing makes a valiant effort to give the improvisers several scenes in which they can just play. These scenes were my favorite—especially a semi-romantic encounter between Mississippi and his long-burning lover, played here by an excellent Chrissy Shackleford.
How telling is it that in a show chock full of fanciness that I was most engaged when it was—-look at that!—-two or three people standing around improvising? It would seem that this deflated my original advocacy of more spectacle. But au contraire: the special effects and choreography provided a delightful counterbalance to the talky scenes. If the entire show had been talky, I’m certain I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, even with such professional improvisers at the helm. If you’re going to ask me to sit through 75-90 minutes, I need more than plaid shirts and talking heads.
Indy Movies delivers a little bit of everything. And I can assure you it is unlike any improv show you’ve ever seen—and unlike any improv show you’re likely to see in the near future.
Go see the show.
Indy Movies runs every Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. at ColdTowne Theater through September. For more information and to reserve tickets, click here.