Improvised theatre – “impro” or “improv” if you want to sound down with it – is usually associated with madcap sketch comedy. Thank God You’re Here and all that jazz. Impro Melbourne, however, is set to give that image a shake-down with Fat City.
The show is a slice of noir crime fiction, set in an American city that’s all mean streets, a world of mobsters, molls, hard-bitten cops and corruption. It is also a rare experiment in improv, crafting crime narratives off the cuff over four consecutive performances.
The cast go on knowing the setting and having chosen their costumes but with nothing else planned about the character or story they will enact. The characters are introduced through a series of vignettes, each appearing in two scenes that show different sides of their life. You might see the moll with her pimp in one scene, then going to church in the next for example, depending on which cast member decides to walk out of the wings and what they concoct between them on stage.
Once the players are established, the cast elect one character to be the protagonist for an ongoing story. This too is improvised, with director Jason Geary backstage deciding on the fly which characters go on together in each scene to move the story forward. As a neat hook to snare a return audience, those characters who don’t feature much in the chosen story perform their own tale’s finale at the start of the ensuing show.
The format is not only a new one for Impro Melbourne, it’s a wholly new one devised by Geary, who originally conceived the Fat City setting for a writing project. (Which is still on the cards, incidentally, with plans to publish prose versions of the improvised stories at the end of the run.)
While improv might not be able to exactly mimic the tight plotting of well-oiled crime fiction, the show is a convincing evocation of genre. The cast prepared for the show by working with classic crime writing, from Elmore Leonard to Sin City, giving them a good ear for the intonations of noir language. The “slice of life” approach is a well-chosen device too, allowing exploration of a range of characters and situations without fear of leaving a few loose ends.
The sensibilities of the show remain essentially comic – it’s more noir satire than gritty thriller – but there is genuine drama and pathos too. The second night’s performance, after opening with a murderous confrontation over a board game at a hit man’s mother’s house, evolves into the story of an innocent girl being forced into prostitution by her gangster landlady and a sleazy priest. With lovable heroes, enjoyably despicable villains, witty dialogue and a genuinely touching romance at its core, aided by live jazz and lighting cues that are likewise improvised, the story builds to a strong and emotionally affecting climax.
Whatever you thought you knew about improv, fuhgeddaboutit. Fat City is a whole new game, bud.
Impro Melbourne presents
Venue: The Space | 5 Carlton Street, Prahran
Dates/Times: Sundays 6, 13, 27 November and 4 December 2011 at 7:30pm
Tickets: $20 Full, $15 Conc, $15 Groups of 8