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April 22, 2013

4/20 Spark Improv Troupe Show Was a Trip

Improv1You're watching a scene from the highly acclaimed film Dance of the Walrus Hunters. A grizzled hunter and a questing novice stand in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, scoping out the walrus population.

"How are we going to kill it?" the novice asks. "A gun? A spear?"

"No," the hunter intones. "To kill the walrus, you have to make love to it."

A voice offstage announces, "This is your Oscar-winning moment!"

An über-schmaltzy soundtrack kicks in as the hunter steps forward to deliver a stirring monologue about the first time he killed something by, er, expressing his affection toward it: "She was 12 years old," he begins, his voice quavering Oscar-clip style. "She was orange. She was my favorite cat."

It just got weirder from there.

Improv4The Feel Good Comedy Benefit last Saturday at Burlington's Metronome was a "celebration of drug prevention" with all proceeds going to Connecting Youth, which encourages young folks to "make healthy choices."

But while it was a drug-free event, it was still pretty trippy. That's because improvisation — especially performed by a skilled, fast-paced troupe — tends to go to way more bizarre places than scripted comedy.

And the 11-person Spark Improv Troupe, founded by Nathan Hartswick and Natalie Miller of Spark Arts, kept things clicking along on Saturday.

If you've watched "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" (most people's first exposure to improv), you know this type of comedy tends to be uneven. When sketches don't quite come together, improv can look like a slow parlor game. But when they do, inspired madness results.

I saw plenty of the latter on Saturday. One of my favorite bits was the "Oscar-Winning Moment" game (which led Hartswick to remark that he was glad the show was 18-plus). Another, for obvious reasons, was the sketch based on a real Seven Days I-Spy.

Improv3The ad was posted by a gentleman attempting to reconnect with a lady whose cart he'd collided with at Walmart. That still happened in Spark Arts' version, but a zombie-like horde of Walmart greeters turned the tale of budding romance into a horror flick.

Then there was the sketch where a girl wants to get married so badly, she kidnaps a groom and keeps him in her basement. And another involving a vacation on Cannibal Island. And the one where an audience member's day was reenacted in 60 seconds, then in 30 seconds, then in 15 seconds, then in seven seconds.

Most of these improv games start with a prompt (often from the audience) and have built-in rules, which force the players to go with seat-of-the-pants inspiration rather than using lines or characters they've already vetted. The results tend to be silly, twisted, hilarious or all three.

The audience on Saturday wasn't huge, but it was clearly having fun.

Full disclosure: I've been attending Spark Arts' Improv Drop-In, but this is the first time I've seen the troupe perform. You can find upcoming shows on the Vermont Comedy Club Calendar.

Photos courtesy of Drew Briggs.

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