'Improv at The Focus' is a mixed bag, with a payoff 

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The title of Thursday evening's performance at The Focus Theater's new location in the Sibley Building was a bit misleading.  Sure there was "Improv @ The Focus" that night, but not until about 45 minutes into the performance.

And while I'm a fan of stand-up comedy, it's definitely not improv, not in a traditional sense anyway. So I was a bit confused when the evening's more-than-capable MC Cindy Arena took to the stage for a short set and to introduce three stand-ups for their own individual performances.

Arena's comedy was crass, but in an endearing way, and her stage presence was unassuming while still being forceful. The remaining stand-ups on the bill that night were two comics in the earlier stages of their craft, and one comedian, Anna Hall, who hadn't done a set in several years. The three featured artists had their hits and a few random misses, but each of them had an earnestness and delivery all their own.

The first improv group to take the stage was dubbed Roger's Mom. They worked out their short-term bits with games such as "Pan Left" (which allowed for all the improv actors to work with one another in pairs), "Emotions with Bell" and its drastically different vibes for the same scene, and "Advice Column" which was easily the most successful of the three exercises.

Three of the actors were asked the same question about managing finances or pets. One of them tried to give solid advice, the other gave terrible advice, and the third gave deranged advice. "Advice Column" gave the actors more time to develop the direction they were going, and the simple rules of the game provided a structure that was fun for both the performers and the audience.

The evening closed with improv from We're Kind of Lemons. The first game the group played with a one-word expression.  An actor would start with a kind of mini-monologue, and the next person came in, picked up on a thematic aspect from the previous actor, and start off in a different direction. This game of improv telephone was interesting and the pacing was perfect. Eventually, one person expounded about a serial killer hawk. Not all of it made any sense. Actually, very little of it did. But that wasn't the point.

The overall performance from We're Kind of Lemons felt like surfers trying to catch a wave.  An actor would hit on an idea with potential and ride it out before the idea fell apart and the scene in question would take a dive.

By far the funniest part of "Improv @ The Focus" that night was We're Kind of Lemons' execution of a scene that could best be described as "Mime Cops." What started as a serious traffic accident involving a pedestrian quickly became a farcical parade of law enforcement officals who, inexplicably, said nothing — and more perplexingly did nothing but trace a chalk outline, one by one, around the fallen pedestrian. The absurdity of it was brilliant.

That seems to be the nature of improv in a nutshell: Sometimes working through ideas on-the-spot takes time, until you finally strike gold.

"Improv @ The Focus" continues tonight, Sept. 24, at 9 p.m. for one last Fringe performance. Ages 18 and over.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's arts editor. He can be reached at [email protected].
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