If there’s one area in which Alan Coyne excels, it’s self-transformation. Not the spiritual kind, but the literal kind. During a ninety-minute improv performance last Saturday, Coyne inhabited roughly a dozen different characters — among them a Russian princess, a lecherous mad scientist, the god Thor, a pregnant “first wife” in a polygamous marriage, a fascist boss, a tattletale kid, and an old codger reminiscing about the county fair. Coyne never tells us who he is at a given moment. We have to watch him interact with the other actors onstage, and gradually divine what’s happening. That’s exhausting work for an audience. But the payoff is terrific.
A former UC Berkeley English major with a passing interest in dramatic arts, Coyne is the most arresting performer in Awkward Face Improv Troupe, a twelve-member ensemble birthed from Oakland’s Pan Theater. The group — or various iterations thereof — performs every Saturday night, and some Friday nights, at a small black box downtown. Also home to a psychic, a nursing class, and an issuer of bail bonds, the building presents itself as an unlikely space for theater — let alone an elaborate game of “let’s play pretend.” But spareness is part of the Pan Theater aesthetic. The actors come dressed in street clothes; the stage has no curtains or set pieces; audience members sit in uncomfortable folding chairs. It’s an exercise in collective imagineering.
That setup puts a huge burden on Awkward Face, not just to ensure that we’re all on the same page, but to create sketches with narrative coherence, some kind of arc, and, when possible, an “a-ha” moment at the end. Half of the actors showed up for last Saturday’s performance, which is typical, said McCal. It’s also an ideal number, for sake of delegating roles and organizing things on the fly. The actors were a mixed bag. Coyne stood out most, with his small, rubbery body and coke bottle glasses. He has a Buster Keaton-ish ability to over-pronounce every body movement. He’ll pretend to chew cotton candy by twisting and elongating his entire jaw. He’ll trudge into a scene eight-and-a-half months pregnant, his body wracked by the weight of an imaginary fetus.
Second in line that night were Will McNaull and Max McCal, who shared an exceptionally funny scene in which a struggling jazz pianist (McNaull) looked on while his slacker roommate (McCal) indulged in some kind of nefarious get-rich-quick scheme. Veteran troupe member Virginia Harrington was a little more methodical, and seemed more inclined to insert herself into a scene than invent one. Mary Mattingly, who is soft-spoken and willowy offstage, excelled at playing hunchback geriatrics and pliant young women. Founding member David Alger got less stage time than anyone else, since he had to work the lights, too. He’s apparently the glue that holds everything together.
The actors did a series of by-the-book improv games to warm the audience up, starting with “Freeze.” That’s about as paint-by-numbers as you get in improv: Two people start a scene by quickly creating some kind of character relationship and conflict. Then another person infiltrates, telling them both to freeze. The infiltrator tags one actor out, assumes the same physical position as that actor, and starts a new scene. That game got the ball rolling. Later they upped the ante with “alphabet,” which is more of a brain strain. Two actors do a scene in which all lines start with sequential letters of the alphabet. In another game Harrington and Mattingly had to choose their lines from scraps of paper in a box. The scraps don’t exactly encourage coherence (sample lines: “Obummer is president”; “I love babies, but I can never finish a whole one”). They made do with a sketch about a dysfunctional lesbian relationship. One woman (Harrington) worships a duck-god, and Obama. The other (Mattingly) is canoodling with their midwife.
Some games — like “Musicals,” in which two actors spontaneously burst into song at the audience’s behest — seem better in conception than execution. Others are sure-fire hits. Saturday’s highlight was “Who Am I?” a weird guessing game that required one actor (McNaull) to leave the room, while two others (Coyne and McCal) devised a scene based on audience suggestions. Upon reentering, McNaul had to guess his identity (we chose Henry David Thoreau), his locale (Pizza Hut), and his apparel (neon sunglasses), by sussing out clues from the other actors. It’s harder than it sounds.
Improv is perhaps the riskiest form of theater in that it requires so much work from both the actors and the audience. Cast members have to think quickly, read body language, script-write in their heads, quip without setups, change personalities on a dime, and end a sketch before it gets boring. Audience members have to follow an ever-shifting storyline, wherein each scene provides fresh disorientation. There were, indeed, several moments on Saturday when sketches devolved into pure absurdism (i.e., babies falling from the sky, or supernatural creatures devouring Rhode Island), or had too many plot twists. But mostly, Awkward Face achieved a rhythm that’s virtually unattainable in a free-associative universe. Chalk it up to chemistry, or the talents of a few ultra-malleable improvisers. They’ve taken liberties with the form, while turning it into a discipline.