By BRIAN KEARNEY
A lot of people know Jonathan Richman as that guy singing in the tree in There’s Something About Mary. But he also invented punk. Similarly, there are people who know Keith Johnstone as that guy from the Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink, but Johnstone also more or less invented competitive improv as we know it today. I know him from his book Impro, which is a book of improv games and also a masterful analysis of what happens every time humans get in each other’s space. Suffice to say I’m a big fan. And when I saw that the Brody Theater, a company based on improvisation, was playing a game of his called Micetro in Portland on Saturday night, I decided to go along.
Taking my seat for the show, I’m surprised by the number of people who look like they’re here by themselves. I’m wondering if this is where the friendless of Portland are on a Saturday night when the emcee/judge/referee bounds up on stage. It’s his first time to present the show, he tells us, although from his comfortable drollery you’d never tell. He gets those of us who’ve been to the show before and those who haven’t to cheer in turn—about fifty-fifty, by the sound of it—and then explains the rules.
Micetro, or Maestro, is a game in which the players improvise scenes and are awarded one to five points for their performances, depending on how loud the audience applauds. The scenes are short, and the judge can end them or alter them at his discretion. It’s a competition, in that the players with the least points are eliminated round by round till there’s a winner. There’s a cooperative element to it, too, because if a scene is good, everyone involved gets the points. And there are few things less funny than watching people shut down each other’s jokes.
Preliminaries done, 11 players dance onto the stage. Brody Theater is also an improv school, with students from the advanced classes eligible to participate in the show, and I’m guessing that at least some of the players are students and new to this. Many of them, with their tight smiles and loose hips, seem like they’re trying to convey a kind of down-for-whatever insouciance, but the effect is not so much “extra in a Bud Light commercial” as “striptease for an executioner.”
And there’s good reason to be nervous. In the early rounds, while everyone is still warming up, a lot of things refuse to work. Players fumble for a punchline or a plot like horror movie ingénues trying to turn a dead engine. Scenes hobble around aimlessly till they’re euthanized by the judge. But then the pall lifts, it all goes right, and the audience laugh twice as loud to relieve the tension previous mishaps created. This combination of hits and misses strikes the heartstrings as well as the funny bone, and makes Micetro far more enjoyable than, say, four episodes of Whose Line is it Anyway? back to back.
It’s a matter of taste, but for me there’s just something about seeing people this defenseless in public. Late in the show one of the players is asked to give a character monologue, and every time the judge honks he has to cut in with a fact from his own life. No shocking revelations—he tells us about how he used to dumpster dive and how his brother teaches at a community college—but it gets one of the biggest cheers of the night, and less because it’s insanely funny than because he’s a likeable guy out on a limb. Micetro is kind of like the Roman circus backwards, appealing to the instinct to reward vulnerability rather than punish it.
The performance gets better and better as it goes on. After the interval (during which I realize all the singletons in the audience are actually the performers’ other halves), the crowd is thoroughly warmed up. The stage calls for suggestions, and they give them with pantomime gusto. The judge asks for an elective position you might run for, and when everyone shouts at once, he cups his ear to hear us.
“The what? ‘The Mouse Mayor of Space Town,’ is that what I’m hearing?” the judge asks, and then one lucky performer has to give a candidacy speech while channeling an animal of the audience’s choosing. And while we’re still wondering how the dickens he’s going to get a scene out of this, he produces a kind of Nixon/octopus routine and steals the show.
There’s some real skill here. One of the last and best scenes of the night involves one player juggling the characters of Doctor Frankenstein, his monster and a hunchbacked assistant. One second he’s the monster paralysed in horror and the next he’s Doctor Frankenstein running a trembling hand down the monster’s body. “My son,” the Doctor purrs as he strokes his creation, “for indeed you have all the…parts…of a son.”
It’s a fitting end to a show whose pleasures are composed of many parts, some of them questionable and maybe a little perverse. Along with the obvious satisfaction of laughing at the jokes, there’s the masochistic kick that comes from watching performers of varied experience die on stage; there’s the benevolent relief when they get it right; and there’s the rainy day comfort of watching it all from the safety of the audience. Plus you get to leave the theatre thinking of all the things you would have said if you were up there, with their courage. It’s good stuff.