Improv is ubiquitous in Chicago, mainly short-form comedic improv, with a rise in long-form adding to the mix as well. Rarely, however, have I seen any theatre company attempt dramatic improv. Theatre Momentum bills its latest show, Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics, as “comedy and drama in equal measure,” and I will admit I was skeptical of the idea of serious scenes evolving out of improvisation. Improv relies on impulse, and impulse is often so absurd that it leads to comedic outcomes. Improv can’t help but be funny because it so often devolves into the ridiculous.
Or so I thought.
I went into Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics with a strong sense of curiosity. What would dramatic improv look like? How would the performers pull it off?
Remarkably smoothly, I found. The first few scenes have all those familiar elements of improv—someone mentions a waiter, so yes and we’re in a restaurant; you called me “babe,” so yes and we’ve been dating for three years. When a scene begins to stall, two different actors file in from the wings to take over with a new scene.
What’s surprising and fascinating, though, is how the scenes begin to weave together. When an actor returns to the stage, they are never a new character—they continue with the personality, business, and relationships they had in their previous scenes, using their real names instead of character names to help keep things straight. These relationships are sincere, and so a story begins to unfold that makes sense, that has set conflicts and goals for each of the characters. It becomes possible to root for one character’s success over another’s.
The end result is something like a dramedy of average quality, a story with some ends not tied up and some characters underdeveloped—which would be disappointing in a scripted play, but here, in a two-act coherent improvised show, is incredibly impressive. There is no shortage of humor in the show, yes, and a Pam Beasley joke by Deborah Parks had me and other audience members bursting with laughter and delight. But the show never moves into the over-the-top absurdity of purely comedic improv; no premise is so wacky or unrealistic that it cannot be treated seriously. And that, I think, is where the idea of dramatic improv succeeds the most in this production.
The one element that I didn’t understand, walking away from this show, was how the title connected to the story. Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics is a damned good title, and the performers had supposedly brought in their own lies, damned lies, and statistics to build a show around, but what these lies and statistic were was unclear to me. Perhaps they’re simply ideas that inform the actor’s work and it’s irrelevant that the audience know them, but if that’s the case, perhaps another title would do.
Dramatic improv was a new experience for me, and it’s one I would definitely like to have again. The ensemble cast at Theatre Momentum does a fantastic job telling a unique story in a way that is funny but not silly, on-the-fly but not chaotic. If you’ve never given dramatic improv a shot, this is the place to do it.
Location: Pendulum Space, 1803 W. Byron Street, Chicago
Dates: May 4 – June 16, 2018 (no shows 5/25, 5/26)
Times: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 PM
Tickets: $10. Tickets are available at the Theatre Momentum website.
All photos by Dominic Catena.