Theater

'iMusical' Delivers Quick Crass Quips

Jordan Hirsch and Julie Poteet, foreground, make it up as they go along in the improvisational comedy
Jordan Hirsch and Julie Poteet, foreground, make it up as they go along in the improvisational comedy "iMusical." (Washington Improv Theater)

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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 14, 2006

If improvisation reveals a lot about how the mind works, then the extroverts at Washington Improv Theater are an unembarrassed bunch of sickos.

The theater's latest staging is the inevitably scattered but amusing "iMusical," and because it's improvised nightly, there's no chance of spoiling the gleefully vulgar, rough-hewn plot that took sudden shape at Flashpoint's tiny Mead Theatre Lab.

By audience suggestion at Wednesday night's opening, it began at a diner that was failing a health inspection; then the cast moved the action to a nearby camp for pregnant teens. One tasteless off-the-cuff joke later and the story lines were linked, placing everyone firmly in the grip of a "Sweeney Todd"/"Soylent Green" affair with appropriately bouncy and sinister songs.

"I've got a job to do," crooned Mark Chalfant as the morose, maligned health inspector, and other characters deftly picked up the refrain as pianist-director Travis Ploeger grinned and pounded out a bluesy melody from the side of the stage.

Ploeger and the 10 actors -- dressed in street clothes, acting without a set, lighted on the fly by Annie Drinkard and Michael Kitces -- give the impression of working without a net. But clearly they've practiced ("rehearsed" doesn't seem like quite the right word), intuiting the contours of, say, an opening number, or when scenes reach their limits and someone has to break into song.

It looks like a tag-team classroom game, with two or three actors working center stage while the other cast members hover on the sideline, ready to leap in. (There was no dancing in this particular performance; given the tight quarters, that would really be something.) Part of the fun is watching the offstage actors and Ploeger; you can tell something's really fresh when they crack up along with the audience.

But most of the fun is watching the actors try not to bomb. If one of them blurts out a lyric that patently goes nowhere -- "The special is very . . . special," went a tentative verse in the diner -- they can't back out; they can only flavor it up with ketchup. (Or, in this case, cannibalism.)

Then there was the case of actress Natasha Rockwell, who might have played a dozen characters if the show hadn't ended at 45 minutes. As it was, she played a cook named Sloppy, a pregnant teen, the health inspector's mother and a couple of others, sometimes nearly simultaneously. Her mid-show ballad with a fellow mother-to-be (played by strong-voiced Shelby Sours) briefly threatened to assume Lloyd Webber dimensions.

The show needed Rockwell's anarchy and knack for punch lines, and yet was moderately impressive in its tidiness. It wrapped up with a loping, lightly mocking warmhearted finale; its chorus -- "It seems like nothing really happened at all" -- was spot on.

iMusical: The Improvised Musical. With Jordan Hirsch, Karen Lange, Colin Murchie, Julie Poteet, Jason Saenz and Shawn Westfall. Through Oct. 29 at Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW. Call 202-315-1318 or visit http://www.iMusical.org.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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