Portland Improv Experience
July 21, 2011
Lucid Stage is way off-Broadway and slightly off-peninsula (just off Baxter Boulevard, near Hannaford). It’s one of the few venues in town that hosts improvisational comedy performances, and last Thursday the stage belonged to the Portland Improv Experience (PIE).
Stand-up comic Bryce Hansen opened the show with his adaptation of a Mitch Hedberg schtick. With a dry, dead-pan delivery, acting as stoned as possible, Hansen told one absurd one-liner after another: “Do deaf schizophrenics hear voices?” His material was solid, but being the warm-up act, he faced a quiet audience. Unfortunately, instead of helping the audience understand his character, he apologized profusely whenever a joke didn’t get any laughs. Halfway through, he realized the folly of that approach and turned self-deprecating, which allowed him to gain some momentum with the crowd and stick it out to the end of his set.
PIE opened strong, showing the enthusiasm you’d expected from a young improv group eager to impress. They opened with a game called “Brand New Game” and returned to it several times, making it a theme of sorts for the evening. A PIE member would make up a game based on audience suggestions and then other players would free-ball until some sort of outcome was satisfied.
The group’s short-form improv (the kind popularized on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) was concise and sweet. PIE excels in object work — if one character “threw” a heavy object, the receiver caught it and doubled over from the weight without missing a beat. They maintained a high level of energy, even when the subject matter veered dangerously into the surreal. And PIE delighted in meta-improv, frequently pointing out the flaws and fallacies in their fantastical imaginings, often to uproarious results.
Their long-form improv was free; the players didn’t concern themselves too much with linking scenes together to form cohesive stories. Soft negation (rule number one in improv is never say “no”) and a few too many questions (which only serve to stymie a plot) were pitfalls in their set, but these instances were few and far between.
PIE favors such free-form scenes over gimmicky games, a predilection that pushes their absurd creations ever further into the mists of the surreal. Last Thursday’s performance was a tremendously entertaining show, though perhaps I could have followed it more closely if I’d been as stoned as Bryce.
— Anders Nielsen