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Scenes From the Marathon

UCB's 8th Annual Del Close Marathon keeps the bar high for improv performances

When seeing the Del Close Marathon of improv, often the groups that stand out amid the rapid succession of performances are those that add a genre or conceit to their improv. They make their mark among all the rest doing the standard long-form improv, however good the rest of these groups might be.

This was certainly the case this year, as the originators of the marathon, the Upright Citizens Brigade themselves (Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Matt Besser -- minus their fourth, Amy Poehler), became a frat-boy, prop-smashing (like The Who of comedy), spectacle for an hour early Saturday evening around the midpoint of the marathon. As Roberts told the audience, which had a few walkouts and dissenters, anyone staying was complicit as they figuratively “played hockey with a six-year-old retarded girl” with their antics.

But all the bluster had an undercurrent of something else, as Roberts kept trying to pull in a story of why he’s such a nice guy amid the mayhem -- how he spent his day taking his family to a horse parade in New Jersey. Amid this, Walsh circled him like a kid, riding a cooler mounted on a scooter … and Roberts accepted and lost an audience challenge to come up with a better story.

In a more cultured vein, Pearl Brunswick, an all-female musical improv group with a greater concentration on the actual music than Baby Wants Candy, delivered a funny tale of radio announcers finding love, with Glennis McMurray, also of musical improv trio I Eat Pandas, as the de facto lead hiding the secret of her naturally bad speech.

And in the historical improv genre (if there is such a thing), The Sunshine Gang, who cast themselves as a 1930s New Deal theater project with attire to match, added to their ongoing story by taking the stage chained together at the feet, explaining they had been kicked out of the project and escaped from a chain gang, although not completely.

In the standard improv format, The Stepfathers -- Billy Merritt, Chris Grace and Bobby Monahan and Zach Woods in this show -- expertly and deftly juggled plots all taking place around a single airline flight. A pair of airline pilots repeatedly shoot the stewardess who annoys them. “Lenny Kravitz” and other celebrities have all chosen this flight to commit suicide on, via pills and the like. The ground crew directing taxing planes aims to choreograph their moves, leading somehow to a dance-off between “Alvin Ailey” and “Savion Glover.” All of these bits re-appeared multiple times within just one 30-minute timeslot, getting more outlandish and hilarious as they went on.

Other major highlights seen in the marathon were Roberts and Roberts, Kill Your Darlings, and Delaney & Merritt Omelette Vision. Roberts and Roberts are the aforementioned Ian Roberts with his wife, Katie Roberts (who is one of the first wave of UCB performers as a member of The Swarm). Together, with a story of a boy and his fat aunt, they tapped more than just fat jokes, weaving a tale in which the boy’s fear of visiting his aunt because he might become fat like her becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Kill Your Darlings, currently one of the UCB’s resident Tuesday night improv group, was driven by standout work from Lennon Parham, who also shone earlier this year in the theater’s Showgirls parody. She conveyed a lot of emotions in scenes all at once, as the unfolding story pinballed from a yard sale back to how each item in the sale was originally acquired, and on to other situations involving the same characters, including a baseball game. Repeatedly at the center of the action, Parham was ably supported by Rob Lathan, Nate Shelkey, Dave Thunder and Robert Webber (not the complete group, but those present at this show).

Delaney & Merritt’s show -- the aforementioned Billy Merritt with Michael Delaney, who teach high-level classes for the UCB -- showed mastery of the long form, and inventiveness of building plot behind their characterizations in ways that could eventually circle back to a satisfying conclusion.

Naturally, putting on so many shows, not everything in the marathon is going to be great, and in fact, odds are there will be some misfires. This year, the duo Bassprov, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, who do improv in character as Southern redneck fishermen, could not be helped by guest Horatio Sanz, with their performance veering aimlessly as they obviously found themselves at a loss at several points for what to say next to make the scene.

Cargo Cult, an independent New York improv group performing early Sunday morning, tread in dangerous territory of using the n-word repeatedly in scenes, which is difficult to pull off without falling into the trap of having the power of the word totally overtake a scene. Group member Jaime Skinner seemed to sense this, at least, as she quickly did edits (running in front of the action to indicate the end of a scene), to cut most of these short. The group did not seem experienced enough yet to give a scene using this slur enough other material that deserved a laugh.

With the sheer volume of shows in the marathon, usually it’s just a few diehard college students that catch everything or anywhere close to that. The sampling of shows mentioned here mixes a bit of the experienced and inexperienced, and aims to present an idea of the range of types of performances offered. All in all, the marathon is a not-to-be-missed event that affords the highest overall quality of shows an audience can get in one short span of time out of the course of a year.



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