For all the laughs it generates, perhaps the most impressive thing about BATS Improv's feature-length Improvised Hitchcock shows is the moments of genuine tension. Seriously.
At last Saturday's show, where the troupe whipped up a prime faux-Hitchcock flick titled (as per audience selection) 20 Rooms, it seemed to matter whether Dave Dennison, as the man accused of a crime he didn't commit, managed to escape the goons charged with chucking him from the top of a clocktower.
Better still, it seemed to make sense when a mysterious hotel worker (Zoe Galvez) slid a key off her prodigious keyring and slid it to Dennison - playing a beleaguered American charged with murder in Czechloslovakia -under the nose of a prison guard. Dennison asked what this was for. Galvez snapped back, with wicked yet hilarious sincerity and a cracked Czech accent, "There are 20 rooms, but there are 21 keys."
That's no sillier than the killers in real Hitchcock choosing to perform their murder at the climactic crash of an orchestra's cymbals.
That all this works is testament to the power of the suspense-film template (here: an everday joe, an exotic locale, some mysterious women, a glut of villains, a handful of surprising yet inevitable revelations, and an all-important Macguffin). But more important than the genre trappings is the way this veteran make-it-up-as-they-go crew has mastered the feat of collective imagination that is longform improvisation.
(That includes you, the audience, in the collective. The closet thing to good longform I can think of is that elementary school gym-class routine where everyone works together to set a parachute billowing, except in this case the parachute is reality itself.)
For some 90-plus minutes, the BATS crew slow-burn their way through a story that only forms as they proceed. Silly stuff is played straight, and straight stuff - like the Midwestern wholesomeness that was the defining trait of Dennison's character - is played silly. "Who is this gruesome individual?" Dennison asks when encountering a thug, giving us not an impression of James Stewart but a sharp-eared summation of his essence: no stammering but lots of Readers Digest Americanism.
"You have the eye of an artist!" an unctuous local faltters him.
"Sometimes I do a little watercoloring," Dennison responds, and the line killed because his character possessed no earthly idea that it could be funny.
Highlights abounded. Improvised Hitchcock takes on the great director's continental, The Man Who Knew Too Much mode, so the BATS crew treated us to a daft montage sequence in which Dennison tours his Czech town. John Remak, William Hall, and others made strong impressions as the locals he encounters. The ensuing mystery - which concerned, by the end, an attempt by the Italians to colonize terrible Scottish cuisine - seems a bit too silly now, but it worked well onstage.
My only complaint is that the show wore on a bit toward the end, a common problem with improv and sketch shows, in San Francisco, where troupes ask audiences to commit to a full evening's worth of entertainment rather than the brisk, no-lull 50 minute shows that the best L.A. and New York theater truck in. Overall, though, this is less a send-up than Hitchcock than a play-along tribute, one alive with real laughs - and, occasionally, real chills.
Improvised Hitchcock runs Saturdays through October 22 at BATS Improv Theatre in Fort Mason. Call 474-6776 or visit www.improv.org.