I started with a performance by Cool Table, a Chicago-based improv group that, two years ago, provided a very memorable evening anchored with a still-ringing-in-my-head song about the children's game Duck, Duck, Goose (such is the case with most improv and sketch comedy: retelling is notoriously unfunny. So I'll refrain from giving too many details). Last, year, they were about half as funny. This year, half again.
The venue actually helped. The ComedySportz arena is a much better space for improv than the American Cabaret Theatre. But the group opened and closed with flat, uninventive sketches and, in between, never quite found the rhythm to connect the occassionally funny bits. The four-person cast will be supersized for future shows when the rest of the compatriots join them for future shows. For future audiences' sake, I hope this was just an understaffed warm-up rather than a sign of company decline.
Next up: "Adventures in Mating," which had a fun gimmick but nothing to fill it. The premise is that a couple meets for a blind-date meal. Whenever a choice needs to be made (red vs. white wine, she kisses him/she slaps him), the waiter rings a bell and the audience makes a choice. Problem is, the characters are so broadly painted (both in the writing and the performing) that I didn't care about whether or not they got together. The nearly full house was generous and seemed to have a good time while I had flashbacks to last season and remembered the Owensboro, Kentucky's Merely Players weren't funny then, either. The company's founding artistic director, Alan Velotta, does a solid job as the waiter and deserves better.
The afternoon was saved with a visit to Clown at Work. Some theatergoers lament the number of magic/acrobatic acts and one-person shows at the Fringe this year and I, too, would hate to see the festival evolve further into busker territory. But thank goodness for the charming, sweet and very talented Brent McCoy, whose joyful awe at his own achievements--including juggling traffic cones, balances on various objects, and managing the outbursts of an extremely obnoxious brat in the front row--brought smiles and admiration from the crowd. Adults enjoyed him as much as the kids. Another big plus: McCoy's act was more than just a series of stunts. His show, while casual and interactive, is smart and structured. It's a show. And I'll take his Bob-the-Builder-meets-Avner-the-Eccentric whimsy over amateur theatrics and slumming sketch comics any day.
On that high note, I called it a day.
Indy Fringe continues through September 31. You can find my earlier report here. And for more reviews, previews, video and blogs, visit www.ibj.com.