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Improv Tickles Your Funny Bone

By Kelley Guiney

Unexpected Productions is an improvisational theater group whose home since 1991 has been Seattle's Market Theatre, located, as one might expect, near Pike Place Market. This remarkably talented and intelligent group provides a highly entertaining battle of quick wits in an evening of "competitive" improv, known as TheatreSports, on Friday and Saturday evenings at 10:30 p.m.

Each show the six-member cast is divided into teams of three, and three judges sit sternly on the sidelines to evaluate each performance on its technical merit, narrative, and entertainment value. The judges (entertainment value themselves) also have the power to call the scene to a halt if it's dying on its feet or simply going on past its natural ending point. The scenes are based entirely on volunteered suggestions from the audience, which makes me wonder if there is any art form that requires more adept skill and courage than the art of improvisation.

The resulting show is not only entertaining; it's very inspiring and thought provoking as well. As audience members and the cast piece together scene after scene, you can't help but think about the creative process ­ why some scenes work and others don't, how deeper character development occurs as a result of adding one specific emotion or other variable to the mix, or what suddenly inspires a cast member with the crowning touch for the end of a scene.

A performance in early December featured the "Champions," Gabe Denning, Elicia MacGregor and Mark Pinckney against the "Challengers," Paul Levy, Jay Hitt and Greg Stackhouse who provided some truly brilliant moments for all. Highlights were the barroom brawl that began with the audience suggestion of "two macho pals" and ended with a Shakespearean drama that was truly worthy of the name. Obviously the Champions knew their craft. Pinckney's asides to the audience and death scene were intelligent and hilarious, and matched by MacGregor and Denning's chemistry as friends navigating a confusing moment of mutual attraction-all done without once breaking the Shakespearean spell.

One of the Challengers' scenes began without much promise (the audience suggestion was "a medicine ball") and was magically transformed by the addition of the emotion fear. It was hilarious to watch their different interpretations of the emotion, with Levy bringing the scene to a sudden halt with a terrified sprint across the stage, complete with sound effects.

It's undeniable that no matter how talented the performers, some aspect of a scene's success depends on the audience suggestion. The performers acknowledge this by offering prizes at the end of the evening for the best audience suggestions, which on the evening in question went to the best scene of the evening, a first date where the couple went hunting for grunion (you had to be there).

The first date scene was done as a musical-with the theater's pianist adding to the energy and dynamism by following along and matching the "feel" of the scenes throughout the show. Once again the Champions displayed their talent, as Pickney and MacGregor played the couple and Denning played the grunion. It was an absolutely inspired performance, with the cast making up lyrics on the spot, some even complete with lines that rhymed. I hate to play favorites, but I can't help myself ­ Gabe Denning's talent is stunning and this might be the first time in the history of theater that a grunion stole the show. I guess you have to pull out all the stops when you're playing a small sea creature that no one has ever heard of.

What makes this theater company stand out is the highly creative scene structure and dynamic use of audience participation. Overall, this is a very entertaining and economical way to spend the evening, with tickets at $10; $5 on Sundays. Unexpected Productions also offers a seasonal Long Form Improv show on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Both shows feature a revolving cast so no matter how many times you go there's one thing for certain-you'll never see the same show twice! The theater also offers improv classes. For more information or reservations, visit the Web site at http://www.unexpectedproductions.org or call 206-587-2414.