Los Angeles Theater Review: THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED (Impro Theatre at the Falcon in Burbank)

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by Jason Rohrer on September 6, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

FORD INTO PECKINPAH VIA THE CHICKEN HYMN

Kari Coleman and Michael Manuel in Impro Theatre’s THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED at the Falcon Theatre.I’m a big fan of John Ford and Howard Hawks; My Darling Clementine and Red River are apex achievements in Hollywood studio storytelling. But Ford and Hawks were limited in ways that Impro Theatre is not. When Impro addresses the American Western as a system of philosophy and symbol, it contends with neither the Hays code nor the basic unsophistication of a 1940s shoot-‘em-up movie audience. It benefits from the hindsight of 60 years’ study and commentary on the genre’s strengths and limitations. And frankly Impro’s The Western UnScripted has better writers and actors than Ford and Hawks sometimes had access to, even if they do have to do it on their feet. Certainly Impro’s humor is more sophisticated than Ford’s vaudevillian bent. Co-directors Dan O’Connor and Stephen Kearin wrote some hip, dynamic jokes opening night, everybody did, and they did it live. And acted it too. It’s a stunt in its way as impressive as anything Ben Johnson ever did with a horse.

Floyd VanBuskirk and Robert Covarubias in Impro Theatre’s THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED at the Falcon Theatre. Photo by Rebecca Asher.

The opening-night log-line: A huggy, up-with-people New Sheriff in Town (Brian Lohmann) confronts a Suspicious Woman from His Past (Kelly Holden-Bashar) as well as a corporal punishment-fetishizing Cattle Baron (Paul Rogan) and his Hired Gun (Dan O’Connor), the terror of the town with a daddy-complex and a hankering for a Prostitute with Dreams of a Better Life (Edi Patterson).

Michael Manuel and Ensemble in Impro Theatre’s THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED at the Falcon Theatre.

The sheriff is assisted by a Young Man Who Might Want to Be a Lawman Someday (Nick Massouh), a Drunken Ex-Deputy with Confidence Issues (Floyd VanBuskirk), a cheerfully surly Swedish Hotel Cook (also Patterson), an Unreliable Townie (also Rogan), an Incompetent Town Musician (Kearin), and an Immigrant Mother Brutalized by Life (Jo McGinley) who would like to get her Fresh-as-a-Daisy 16-Year-Old Daughter (Lisa Frederickson) married off so she can lay down and die.

Ryan Smith and Ensemble in Impro Theatre’s THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED at the Falcon Theatre. Photo by Rebecca Asher.

At a climactic Slow-Motion Gunfight, evil is vanquished so thoroughly that the town breaks into a Hymn of Thanksgiving (“Jesus laid an egg / It was the Chicken of the Lord”). These clichés are lent more profundity by Impro than they often carry in the films from which they’re drawn.  If the plot wasn’t as pat as a Hollywood Western’s, the show was no less surprising and entertaining – and, again, much much funnier.

Kelly Holden-Bashar and Edi Patterson in Impro Theatre’s THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED at the Falcon Theatre.

It’s such a confident company that there are very few showboats. Long-form improvisation allows the inspiration of the moment – requires it – to drive the story; a couple months back I saw Fredrickson run wild upon a Sondheim UnScripted show with a series of intelligent, perceptive writing decisions and wildly successful character choices. At the Western UnScripted opening Friday night, she lay back, restricting herself to a single character who delicately colored the action, flirting at the fringe of story and quietly nailing her arc. That’s the thing about these guys: it’s not the common run of panic-based, I-gotta-do-something-now joke baiting common to fifth-year improv troupes. It’s a platoon of veterans coming over the hill toward you, loaded with every kind of device. It’s funny, and it’s touching, most of all it’s fascinating. It’s watching life happen, one-time-only; it is what theater is for.

Nick Massouh in Impro Theatre’s THE WESTERN UNSCRIPTED at the Falcon Theatre. Photo by Rebecca Asher.This outing at the Falcon Theatre features a gorgeously vertiginous two-story set by Sandra Burns, who also did the excellent costumes. This set, with its perfect balance of angle and space, arranges the action and lends perspective in such a way as to raise the question of why every stage set isn’t this helpful. The well-chosen classic music cues (I recognized Dimitri Tiomkin and maybe Cyril Mockridge) were a little loud Friday night; I strained to hear the actors over them. The lighting improvisor (Michael Becker, also stage manager), working from Leigh Allen’s clear design, kept the pictures easy to see, and kept the scenes pithy with judicious fades.  Alex Caan has an equally difficult task improvising the sound, maybe harder, in that when five or six guns are drawn at once, it’s impossible to know where to look for the one that’s about to go off. Opening night, several improvisers had gun issues: errant revolvers, unstrung holsters, rifles that didn’t go off right away. I figure as the cast and crew gets more used to its paces, their cowboying will improve; and it’s almost too bad, because every accident onstage is just another opportunity for artists this awake.

photos by Rebecca Asher

some other reviews of UnScripted Theatre: Tennessee Williams; Sondheim; Chekhov; Twilight Zone; Jane Austen; and Shakespeare

The Western UnScripted
Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Dr. in Burbank
scheduled to end on October 5, 2014
for tickets, call 818-955-8101 or visit www.falcontheatre.com
click here for  calendar of who is performing at each show
for more info, visit www.improtheatre.com

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