Fri. @ 9:30, Sat. @ 8:30, Theatre 99
Improvisation is not a comedy genre lacking in complexity. There's short-form improv – usually comprised of "games" like those seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway – and there's long-form improv, in which the actors embark on extended riffs, often fabricating entire storylines, complete with subplots and character arcs. Consider, for instance, The Harold, a long-form developed by improv maharishi Del Close. It calls for three improvised acts, each with three scenes and a group segment. Within each act, the three original scenes return. By the end of the piece, the three scenes have converged into one. (Don't try this at home.)
Native Indianans Mark Sutton and Joe Bill are as familiar with the rotes of improv as just about anyone working professionally today, having a combined total of 54 years of improvising under their belts. With Bassprov, the Chicago-based two-man show they've been captivating critics with for years, they have finally come full-circle, creating an improvised long-form show so complex that it looks like nothing more than a pair of ordinary, middle-aged guys fishing from a johnboat, sipping suds, and shooting the shit.
But what sublime shit it is they're shooting. Donny Hinckle and Earl Weaver, the two characters they play, are anything but dumb schlubs. Taking a pair of audience suggestions as their departure point, the two anglers navigate their way through a meticulously crafted 45-minute play cleverly disguised as innocuous conversation. Along the way they drop hilarious, and often poignant, commentary on everything from pop culture to the meaning of life.
"There's this notion that in order to do political or social satire you've got to put on a tie and wear a suit and really package the show," Sutton said from Miami, where the two are performing in the Miami Improv Festival before traveling to Charleston this week. "One of the things that makes this show work is that it's just two regular guys sitting there drinking beers and fishing. But the social commentary is often just as trenchant as what you'd find at Second City."
Sutton and Bill went to college together in Indiana and afterward formed a performance group there called Dubbletaque. From there, they moved to Chicago, went through the brand-new ImprovOlympic training program, and banded together with some other IO grads to form Annoyance Theatre. Both continue to perform regularly with Annoyance, Chicago's The Playground, and Second City, where they're each longtime faculty members, instructors, and, of course, players.
"I've been doing improv for 30 years, Mark's been at it for about 24," Bill observed. "We're both in our early 40s. We've done the quick hit stuff, the games, the big group stuff. We're now really enjoying the challenge of just sitting down and drinking a couple of beers and fishing and creating something compelling for people to enjoy and that they can relate to."
The two audience suggestions Sutton and Bill request at the show's beginning provide a loose framework for the conversation that follows. Sometimes they inform the show's main thrust, and sometimes they're merely touched on briefly.
"One of the suggestions is usually asking for something that's personal, related to a character's point of view," says Bill. "The other is circumstantial, maybe something frivolous. That gives us two layers to work with. We'll usually use that mundane device to find an analogy or story that can lead us to something with a little more emotional depth or meaning to it.
"We try to be truthful first and let the funny come out of the truth." –Patrick Sharbaugh