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Scenes From A Marathon (Part 1)

Accounts from the 10th Del Close Improv Marathon, 2008.

For this year’s “Scenes From A Marathon” recap, I am going to try a blow-by-blow approach. One can’t possibly get to everything, but I hope this is a representative account of the 10th Del Close Marathon.

5 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Friday:

Walsh-Besser-Roberts “Press Conference”

The marathon began with what was billed as a “Press Conference” by UCB co-founders Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, who of late have mostly been L.A.-based. (Amy Poehler, who is usually New York-based, seems to be absent this year, maybe shooting a movie perhaps). This event was more of a master class, part seminar, part Q&A session on improv and the ethos the founders want to ingrain in their classes.

Besser lamented that openings to Harold long-form improvisations seem to be taking precedence -- to the point that groups are actually rehearsing what sort of openings they want to do, when openings really are just there to generate material to feed into the scenes of the improv.

Besser also did clarify that the UCB doesn’t strictly see improv as an art only for its own sake -- that the best improv could certainly be a good basis for sketches. Roberts said the highest compliment is when an audience thinks an improvised performance really has been written in advance because it is so sharp. Besser elaborated that premises and stories support improv rather than detract from it, because an improv group’s aim should be to tell a story, albeit by doing so through character.

The latter part of the “Press Conference” focused on Besser, Roberts and Walsh’s memories of Del Close himself, as they brought out a couple obscure albums Close had appeared on while with Second City and in one Broadway musical in the 1960s and played a couple audio clips. One album, a joke record of a “do-it-yourself psychoanalysis kit,” featured Close intoning “yes,” “uh-huh,” and the like, leaving it to you to fill in your own story -- the clip played was a rap song from the late 1980s that had sampled this record and used it as the basis to construct some music around, although you could no longer really hear Close’s voice very much in the result. The clip from the musical cast album was more interesting, with Close having one number that hinted at his anarchic sense of humor that turned up later in his improv teaching.

The first several performances of the Marathon at the UCB Theatre itself featured some of the theater’s brightest stars or associated performers. Namely, the very first show, MySpace (previously reviewed here October 13, 2006 in a regular performance), included the well-known UCB veterans Paul Scheer, Rob Riggle, Jackie Clarke, Rob Heubel, Chad Carter and Owen Burke, along with “30 Rock” star Jack McBrayer, who is more closely tied with the ImprovOlympic in Chicago but is a frequent guest at the Marathon each year.

Scheer in particular stood out this time, as he served as de facto host of the show, conducting the interviews on stage with two different audience members who shared their MySpace pages with the performers and the audience as a basis for the improvisations.

This cast is so good that they make their performance look easy. Riggle in particular has gotten more precise about modulating back and forth between a normal voice and full-on Sam Kinison-like raging at the drop of a hat.

Omelette Vision
A different set of UCB improv stars gave the next performance -- the remnants of the Swarm, Michael Delaney, Billy Merritt, Andrew Secunda and Sean Conroy. Together they presented an imaginative set of scenes that roamed through setting as diverse as the Blarney Stone, Disneyworld and a lecture on the mortgage crisis.

Horatio Sanz guested with improv duo Mark Sutton and Joe Bill, who are known as Bassprov. Their conceit is that they perform their entire improvisation while dressed in fishermen’s gear and periodically mock casting with fishing rods. Bassprov, which is due back to the other Marathon venue of the Hudson Guild Theater tonight (Saturday), presented a tour de force of conversation in which Bill gets hung up on the loss of their small town’s Starbucks and Sutton repeatedly attacks his elitism … all as they meander through some other topics, like Sanz’s eight-limbed mutated niece, for one. This truly was a show that was so good it seemed as if it had been written beforehand.

Lastly, several of the performers from the first two aforementioned shows, presented a show that took the David Matthews Band as a jumping off point, starting with most of the cast in line for memorabilia at a concert as “Satellite” played. Notable, again, was Riggle (sorry for that Yoda-like construction) as the fan taking offense if anyone says anything the least bit non-complementary of Dave Matthews, and Heubel as a bad parent who lets his son wander off and go missing because he doesn’t want to lose his spot on line.

The bulk of the marathon is actually not dominated by the UCB’s stars like this. There are many other New York groups that get time, as well as numerous out-of-town groups who come in just for this event, and the next reviews here will touch on some of these.

Coming next, an account of Friday night’s later shows. (See Part 2)




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