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‘Deck the Balls’ with wows of folly

December 16, 2020
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BANGOR – As part of their holiday bill of fare, Penobscot Theatre Company is offering an adults-only show inspired by a seasonal classic.

PTC is working in tandem with Bar Harbor’s ImprovAcadia to present “Deck the Balls,” an interactive online improv performance inspired by the beloved Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as part of their Digitus Theatrum season. IA’s owners and co-founders Jen Shepard and Larrance Fingerhut are joined by longtime IA performer Mike Shreeman for a full improv comedy show built on the foundation provided by the film. The show runs through December 27; tickets and more information are available at the PTC website (www.penobscottheatre.org) or by calling the box office at 942-3333.

It’s important to note that this show is created live and in the moment every night. This is not a recorded performance; each night, Jen, Larrance and Mike create a brand-new comedy show, one driven by different ideas, different characters … different everything. The only things that remain the same are the performers and the fundamental inspiration. The rest is up to them … and you.

Shepard and Fingerhut have converted the dining room of their Ellsworth home into a studio of sorts, littered with lights and cameras and even a green screen, all in service of creating a fuller, more interactive experience. As the primary forward facing performers, Shepard and Shreeman are the ones we see on screen the most, each bringing a dynamic and engaging energy to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Fingerhut mans the keyboard, providing music for songs and incidental moments alike, all while also serving as a co-director of sorts, helping to steer the ship in the direction necessary to keep everything moving.

And it’s all moving very fast. Shepard and Shreeman spend the first few minutes engaging with the audience, chatting about the characters and plot mechanics of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There are the big names of course – George and Mary and Clarence the angel – but these folks are far more interested in the folks on the fringes. Those are the people with whom we’re going to spend the majority of our time in “Deck the Balls” – and we’re the luckier for it. Scenes, songs and everything in between, all presented with enthusiasm and excitement (and hats – lots of hats).

As someone with some experience in the improv sphere, I should note that my response to the digitally-delivered improv that I’ve seen produced in the last few months has been … let’s call it mixed. The truth is that doing quality improv is difficult under the most ideal circumstances, let alone through a screen via a medium very much not intended for this purpose. Obviously, professionals raise the bar considerably, but still – a lot of this stuff simply doesn’t work.

But “Deck the Balls” definitely does.

The talent of the performers certainly helps. Shepard has an argument as the most gifted improviser in the state of Maine (she wouldn’t make it, but I have no problem doing so); she’s both generous and unrelenting in the unleashing of that gift in this show. Shreeman is Shepard’s equal in terms of energy, though his is a more intense, direct vibe – at times, it’s as though he’s making eye contact with you through the screen. And Fingerhut is a tremendously talented musician, improvisational or otherwise, with a magnificent ear, marvelous instincts and a game willingness to get as goofy as necessary.

Synopsizing the show is a little odd, simply because, well – it’s going to be a different show. The performance I saw will never be seen again. And the performance you see will never be seen again. That’s the transient nature of improv. That’s a big part of what makes it great.

What I will say is that they make a concerted effort to engage with the audience. The relationship between performer and audience is a huge part of any good improv show, and while some of that connection is unavoidably lost in the transition to streaming, Shepard, Shreeman and Fingerhut do a phenomenal job of minimizing that loss. They invite participants to keep their cameras and microphones on, engaging directly as they solicit suggestions to help inspire the various pieces.

Can I explain to you just how wonderful it was to listen to an exchange of letters in a bizarre love triangle between Ernie the cab driver, Bert the cop and Uncle Billy’s pet crow? Or seeing a version of the classic improv game 185 play out against the backdrop of Martini’s? Or versions of Christmas carols sung by assorted characters using lines suggested by the audience?

It’s as wonderfully weird as it sounds.

“Deck the Balls” is a hilarious way to spend an evening, a rousing and ribald tribute to one of our very favorite Christmas movies. If you’re looking for some grown-up fun this holiday season, might I suggest that you get your balls good and decked by the fine folks of ImprovAcadia?

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2020 08:33

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