In the world of improv, a simple phrase can trigger infinite possibilities of comedy, and there were plenty of hilarious examples in the two-day Sarasota Improv Festival at Florida Studio Theatre.
Nearly 85 performers from 16 companies offered a variety of styles and formats to get laughs as returning favorite groups like Dad's Garage and Available Cupholders shared stages with a half dozen troupes who were new to this year’s festival.
Each group performed 45 minute sets, except for the headliners, the Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company, which presented extended shows each night built around interviews with an audience member.
On Saturday, UCB’s Zach Willis, Natasha Rothwell, Langan Kingsley and Josh Sharp turned a hospital pharmacy director’s life into a humorously twisted tale involving a Mafia don threatening a young man who wants to date his daughter. They picked up on key items from the interview and mixed them up in funny ways. They then followed with an original tale based on a phrase suggested by an audience member.
Aside from an exuberant Rothwell, the group has a fun, almost casual style. That’s a sharp contrast to the driving rhythms of Big Bang Improv and ImprovBoston, and the music-inspired groups STACKED and North Coast Improv.
North Coast features six improvers, including beat boxer Mark Martin, who provides the energy that fuels the musical and comedic twists in the group’s narrative. The word “peanut” took the troupe to a grocery story where a cashier had to keep dealing with an emotionally needy customer, with plenty of diversions along the way. In one scene, a chair was paced over Martin’s head and he became a “caged bird” singing.
The word “monkey” triggered the return of STACKED, a lively quartet of women who took the audience on an inspired and constantly funny play date and a musical matchmaking effort, sprinkled with impromptu songs.
Several groups, like Villain Improv found clever ways to return to early themes and build on them. Villain’s show was based on the idea of “Orphan Black,” which they cleverly mingled with references to an upcoming remake of the movie musical “Annie.”
The best troupes and performers show no sign of hesitancy on stage, going freely wherever their cast mates take them.
Some, like Tampa’s Post Dinner Conversation offer some smart ideas, but they allow long moments to pass with no one adding anything to the mix.
But they were the exception. I appreciate the smarts of St. Petersburg’s Hawk & Wayne job-inspired routines, though I probably laughed the most at ImprovBoston, which further impressed with two guests artists filling in for two members held up by flight delays. The group has a winning, stream-of-consciousness style that takes you miles away from where you started but never far from laughs.
FST Improv members did themselves proud launching the festival with well-played games that showed a different side to their standard shows.
Most of the performances passed by quickly. I made it through 11 different shows and still feel ready for more.