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Ready, Set, Go! takes over the PTC stage

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The cast of Ready, Set, Go! From right to left: Allen Adams, Andy Bolduc, Jen Shepard, Dennis Price, Amanda Eaton. The cast of Ready, Set, Go! From right to left: Allen Adams, Andy Bolduc, Jen Shepard, Dennis Price, Amanda Eaton. (photo by Bill Kuykendall)

BANGOR - Even as they return to their usual slate of live shows, Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest offering is decidedly unusual.

The new improv series “Ready, Set, Go!” is a collaboration between PTC and ImprovAcadia, the legendary Maine comedy group. This is the first of a series of joint productions between the two companies; December will see another with the New Year’s show “Auld Lang Zing!” 

The premise of “Ready, Set, Go!” is simple: on the second Sunday of each PTC show’s run at the Opera House, a group of actors will improvise an original play on the show’s set. The remaining performances will be in January, February, April, May and July of 2022.

This iteration starred Jen Shepard, Amanda Eaton, Andy Bolduc, Dennis Price and Allen Adams (yes, that one, and no, he didn’t write this). The actors were set loose on the set of PTC’s holiday show “Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play,” which means, of course, a vintage radio station. It’s cherry-red and gold and quite fun to look at.

To begin, the actors solicited a couple of audience suggestions: the name of a town (“Storington!”) and a completely normal behavior that is illegal in said town (“smiling!”) With that, they were off, Larrance Fingerhut enthusiastically accompanying them on the piano.

In Storington, where smiling is illegal, the residents are, unsurprisingly, various shades of deranged. There is a small German man (“from Düsseldorf,” he insists) obsessed with his Gutenburg printing press. There’s an escaped convict from Massachusetts. There’s a new kid to town and a teenage queen bee. There’s a schoolteacher-cum-therapist who hosts bonding sessions in her “Chat Pit.” 

Naturally, mayhem ensues. 

Understand: a few sharp comic minds formulated all of this on the spot. Those of a slightly nervous temperament tend to avoid improv shows for this very reason; if the actors crash and burn, the audience is going down with them. 

Luckily, the cast of “Ready, Set, Go!” works tirelessly to ensure that their audience feels safe. It’s a matter of maintaining complete, utter dedication to the strangeness of it all - and these actors do, speeding at full tilt into situations that would make most of us squirm. When the cast doesn’t feel weird about, say, a tiny German expat singing a love ballad to his son, the audience doesn’t feel weird about it. And the humor that springs from that shared affirmation is golden.

This is a stacked cast. We have Jen Shepard, whose similarity in appearance and mannerism to Kate McKinnon is uncanny, especially when she straps on her German accent. Andy Bolduc makes an impression with his wacky subversions of stock characters, while Allen Adams’ straight face might be the funniest thing in the whole show (Editor's note: Again, I did not tell her to write this). Dennis Price commands attention with his overwhelming energy and ENORMOUS voice. Meanwhile, Amanda Eaton is all wide eyes and alacrity, a hilarious contrast to the ridiculousness of it all.

And we have the amazing Larrance Fingerhut on keys, providing a soundtrack that ranges from sultry jazz to polka. It’s worth mentioning that these actors are impressive singers as well, improvising tunefully atop Fingerhut’s piano accompaniment. They produce comedy music that could rival Weird Al. And the set of “Miracle on 34th Street” is equipped with a full Foley studio for sound effects, which the actors don’t let go to waste.

“Ready, Set, Go!” is billed as a family show. This is, oddly enough, its greatest asset. Mainstream improv is leaning more and more into profanity as a source of cheap humor; it’s not clear why a string of f-bombs can still get a laugh from audiences (shouldn’t the novelty have worn off by now?) but that was never going to work at PTC. It's refreshing that “Ready, Set, Go!” doesn’t prop itself up on cursing or scatological humor. Instead, it’s smart and funny in the purest way. Kids will certainly get a kick out of the show, especially the slapstick-y bits, but there is plenty of high wit here for the adult intellect. 

That makes “Ready, Set, Go!” sound like an evening at the Met, which it is not. Let’s not forget the essential freakiness of improv. The Opera House audience was treated to a long tango sequence, a janitor performing an amorous duet with his invisible mop, and a brief appearance by Oprah. Seeing this fever dream unfold before you is worth the price of the ticket. I left with a hoarse voice and an adrenaline headache. 

“Ready, Set, Go!”, like every improv performance, comes with a caveat. “Everything you see will only exist for tonight, and then it will never be seen again,” said Shepard, as she introduced the show. “Which could be a blessing.” 

Maybe a bit of comedic self-deprecation - or maybe a reminder that an improv show, like all spontaneous human connection, is irreplicable. That’s a pretty good reason to roll with the weirdness. 

If you’re ready to see an obscenely fun show, I’d say: go for it.

(Subsequent performances of “Ready, Set, Go!” are at the Bangor Opera House beginning in January. For show dates and ticket information, visit penobscottheatre.org.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 December 2021 14:43

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