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PIT crew, including a couple of the theater’s instructors, unfold a P.T. Anderson-style universe of sparely staged and darkly comic sketches.

Promotional picture for As Sparks Fly Upward's sketch show, featuring group member Chris Caniglia with two unknown friends.

Sketch group “As Sparks Fly Upward,” featuring performers Chris Caniglia, Scott Eckert, Sarah Nowak, Nate Starkey and Shelly Stover, presents a show with no less than 16 distinct scenes, including some recurring ones, with little in the way of staging, and even some work that seems like it could have come right out of P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia” screenplay.

PIT instructors Caniglia and Starkey (see previous review of Starkey & Grace improv show) embody this particularly as they play two guys on a car trip of indeterminate purpose together, in three separate scenes over the course of the show. First, they pull over as Caniglia gets an embarrassing case of bowel distress, to which Starkey brilliantly reacts as if nothing strange has happened.

Later, they have an unfortunate collision with Eckert, playing a dog, on the road. And finally, we get a strangely incongruous conversation where the duo tell their wives back home on separate cell phone calls how much they’ve bonded, even though they have barely actually conversed the entire time. In these related scenes, Caniglia and Starkey build a world and create characterizations within it that play out with the sort of atmosphere of strange menace as in “Boogie Nights” when Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild visit the drug dealer Rahad Jackson who ends up chasing them out into the street firing a shotgun. (Anybody remember this?)

Anyhow, these bits were far from the entire show. In fact, the five-member group display many varied characterizations in so many scenes. Early on, the group keep a quicker pace, in alternating pieces where each play a character delivering Christian-oriented stand-up at a church open mike night. In another piece early in the show, Eckert and Stover play a couple who don’t seem to actually want to talk and dodge each other with voice mail, call waiting and hang-up calls, even pulling Nowak into the action by talking to her about each other. And Stover also shines in another sketch as a reformed hooker telling her story on Caniglia’s televangelist’s show, where the callers want to know a little too much about her past life.

The group plots smooth segues from sketch to sketch, and there are a few little details or plot points that also help tie everything together. Each of its members adds different strengths to the mix, with Eckert in particular able to go from quiet to loud and screaming in scenes when it suits the dramatic or comedic purpose. Also the premises are strong and original, especially one showcasing Stover as a real estate agent who can’t stop talking about her past as a battered wife, to Starkey’s horror while she shows him an apartment.

At this performance of the group’s show, seen July 31 at The PIT, at one point, a scene got so many laughs from a very full house, that the group struggled to be heard in their next scene. This show is that good.

As Sparks Fly Upward: “Escape From Past Mountain” returns 9:30 p.m. at The PIT Thursdays, Aug. 21 and 28.



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