The Kansas City Improv Festival shows what artists can do on a whim.

Word Play 

The Kansas City Improv Festival shows what artists can do on a whim.

On a good night like last Saturday, improv can be so riotous that your stomach hurts and you can't help crying with uncontrollable laughter.

Other nights, improv can suck. I mean in the colloquial sense, even though the usage has never made literal sense to me — isn't to suck an act of giving pleasure? Anyway, it even sucked at times during the opening weekend of the first Kansas City Improv Festival in seven years, a mostly grand affair that continues this weekend with workshops and performances from national acts, including hometown heroes such as Saturday Night Live's Jason Sudekis. But this suck was illustrative, drawing a clear line between the past and the future of Kansas City's rapidly maturing improv scene.

First, that past. Saturday's festival opened with Lawrence hobbyists the Hypothetical Seven — a bunch of nice folks, I'm sure — whose show has joined divorce and rum hangovers on the list of things I plan to avoid enduring ever again. Bumbling through stale games, they exhibited few ideas and no sense of emphasis; everyone talked at once. Worse, in several scenes — a word I use only because English lacks a term for "non-sequiturs lazily Frankensteined together" — the chaos would ebb, and a performer would suddenly have our attention ... and wither.

This suck is familiar, a natural result of the mistaken idea that improv is comedy that anybody can do. But improv demands craft, discipline and talent — each of which is flourishing in Kansas City among the people who treat this as an art.

Fortunately, that includes almost everyone else at the festival. The spectacular Trip Fives followed the Seven, and instead of peddling short-form improv (which involves quick games based on audience suggestions) the Trip Fives dared to go long, mining an on-the-spot play from a single word.

On Saturday, that word was banjo. From this, the Fives developed full-fledged characters, heaps of jokes and a senseless but satisfying story that began with a banjo-shop music lesson and climaxed with a legless yokel (the gifted Ed Doris) accepting a Grammy for a song about why kitties don't drive NASCAR. This might have been maddeningly whimsical if the Fives hadn't grounded absurdity in character. Jared Brustad's shop owner had goofy problems that came to feel real. His cats lord over his apartment, and he vented his frustration as he tuned his banjos, singing "My cats are mean," one syllable for each string. Megan Mercer offered a woman of limited intelligence seeking comfort in self-help bullshit; when Tim Lemke (playing a hillbilly cryptozoologist) appeared, spouting inspired nonsense, including a speech about how you can get a DUI on a Big Wheel, Mercer's cashier whipped out a pad to take notes. That it sounded smart was enough for her.

For almost half an hour, they kept inventing, and the audience often laughed hard enough to drown out lines. No hobbyist could pull this off, and no short-form I've seen has been anywhere near as satisfying. This, I hope, is the future of Kansas City improv: the funniest people, pushing themselves hard to produce the best shows. (Unfortunately, the Trip Fives perform only every couple of months.)

The city's other long-form troupe, 2 Much Duck, sometimes approaches the Trip Fives' level and performs more often (on the fourth Saturday of every month at Comedy City). Its show likewise grows from a single suggestion but offers a fugue of related scenes rather than a sustained narrative. Its festival set started strong but quickly went too dark for the room, dwelling endlessly on broken homes — even though the starting word had been jambalaya. Still, this tough-mindedness is what often keeps the troupe from stiffing. Pete Calderone and Rob Grabowski scored unsettling laughs as a father testing his daughter's boyfriend: "Lick my cheek," Calderone demanded. "Stand on that chair on one foot." Then, losing the crowd a bit: "Perform an autopsy on this puppy. "

Improv-abilities and Comedy Improv Sports, the city's two most accomplished short-form troupes, rounded out the opening weekend. Comedy Improv Sports has been doing game-show-style performances for 20 years now and has the format down cold; Improv-abilities was more daring than usual but less fun.

Members of Improv-abilities also turn up in CounterClockwiseComedy, who attempt ballsier short-form than the parent group but suffer from an uncertain identity.

That said, it gave the best performance of the first night, with Wade Meredith and Bess Wallerstein finding glory in a scene about ditch diggers and gender roles: "Why do women always dig in the shape of a heart?" Keith Curtis was also funny, though his talent was at times hobbled by his obsession with poop. And Wallerstein, performing with Improv-abilities the next night, played a crab rangoon with a cheap me-rikey accent. This is smart performers slumming, artists acting like hobbyists.

With Duck and the Fives pushing forward into comedy of greater depth and richness, will Curtis, his compatriots and the rest of their burgeoning scene ultimately push themselves to the right or the wrong side of suck? Maybe this weekend's national acts — the big boys — will give them a shove.

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