-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Bay Area Theatersports. Winter tournament. At the Bayfront Theater, Bldg. B in Fort Mason, Mondays through Feb. 24. Call 824-8220.

One problem with reviewing an improv contest like the Bay Area Theatersports tournament moving forward each week at the Bayfront -- aside from the quicksilver nature of improv -- is that it's already been reviewed. Each contest between two small teams is scored by a panel of judges, and the teams advance or flounder on the points they earn, with very few skits repeated or even remembered from week to week. So it's the judges' opinions that matter, not mine.

But the Bay Area Theatersports company is looked up to by improv groups in other cities, and Bay Area teams have won the state championship three years running. (Theatersports is an international network of improv companies.) One reason they're reliable may be the judges, who give tough grades on a scale of 1 to 5. The actors use some formal ideas about structure, maybe a pre-rehearsed character, cues from one another, and all the inspiration they can stoke to develop and finish a skit. The best have real farce talent, a knack for being poker-faced funny; the worst look as unprepared as they are, stiff in body and mind. So a typical show is closer to late-period Saturday Night Live than hot, improvised bebop, and the BATS members who sit in the judges' chairs have seen more terrible skits than most normal people. This makes them jaded. When the first half of last week's contest developed a prehistoric motif, with one team playing cave men and the other evoking dinosaurs in wordless, funny, tightly performed skits, the audience hooted and laughed; but the unruffled judges weighed in with a stern round of 2s. Grunting your dialogue, they seemed to say, is cheating.

A good improv show needs not just quick actors but also a responsive audience, and last week's crowd was lively. The most graceful skit turned on "something aromatic" -- "lavender," said an enterprising spectator, and Rafe Chase slipped into character as a tough, masculine type who had just fixed his car. His fruity, Cosmo-reading roommate, played by Kirk Livingston, complained about the perfume ads in his magazine and never mentioned odor again. The echo of queerness was muted, flirted with -- "lavender" was never uttered -- and the skit earned two 3s and a 4, not a bad score for the night.

The audience was also brash enough to shout down the judges after a tough experimental piece, a skit that asked each actor to invent someone else's character, meaning one person made up dialogue while the other lip-synced and gestured. Since each marionettist, so to speak, was also a marionette, things got hugely complicated, and the actors mixed up their roles. But the audience was amazed that the four actors could steer the skit to a vaguely coherent end, and when the judges showed 2s and a 3, everyone hissed and jeered -- for minutes, sick to death of the judges' contempt -- with even the critic making himself useful by wadding blank notebook pages and lobbing them toward the front.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Stomp. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor, through Feb. 23. Call 776-1999.
"They paid so much to see the working class show them how much they enjoy sweeping the floor," whispered my husband, his sarcasm singeing my ear. The cast of Stomp, the British percussive phenom-cum-cottage industry, had worked their funky beats with brooms, dustpans, mops, pails, and spackling knives, and were now entering a climactic zone of garbage lids and oil-can stilts. Though I was enjoying myself, I had to admit these performers embodied everything one could want from a passel of happy domestics. They were sexy, tireless, and knew how bust a pretty move while doing manual labor.

Stomp is the brain- and buck-child of Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, longtime collaborators in commercial music and theater. Before Stomp, the duo were choreographing Heineken commercials and Bette Midler's stage shows. So this isn't your average story of underclass art commodified. Still, the whole rollicking event smacks of minstrel fever. (The cast is actually multiethnic, roughly half-black, half-white.)

To be fair, Stomp's elevation of workerly rhythms offers more than hip-hop step-and-fetch-it. In a time of artistic angst and pretension, the ensemble of seven men and two women reminds us that music exists in the humblest of human acts. You don't need a baby grand or a CD player; you can just attune yourself to unraveling fugues of everyday life. Watching them is like imbibing a youth serum. For a crowd more at home at the symphony than in the dance hall, Stomp also provides a cross-generational, cross-class education in the joys of funk. It had the blue-veined man down the aisle pulsing his pelvis and the taffeta-scarved lady with the opera glasses clapping out polyrhythms. But for anyone with a political consciousness, this was strange fare for $42.50.

Indeed, Stomp raises some interesting questions. Is it right to demand political content from a concert just because the instruments come from a janitor's trolley instead of a Stradivarius? Do these proletariat materials carry with them an attendant responsibility to address their origins? Stomp missed many artistic opportunities by eschewing content in favor of giddy, inexorable entertainment. The intermittent appearance of a boss could have clashed with and incited the compulsive play of the "workers." More unpredictable relationships among the players would have sharpened a narrative edge on which to balance certain themes. Instead, the Stomp performers limited their theatrical interactions to a single formula: One guy or gal gets a little too goofy and the others stop and watch him warily. Funny though it is, by the ninth round one wondered what interactions they left on the rehearsal room floor in order to preserve such a supremely sanitized good time.

-- Carol Lloyd

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