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Review: "Who's line is it anyway?"

Westminster improv group keeps the laughs family friendly

Mark Collins, Camera Theater Critic


Saturday, October 14, 2006 WESTMINSTER   It's 7 o'clock on a Friday night at Madcap Improv Theater. The house lights go down and a swerving spotlight bounces across the stage as a rock guitar riff blasts through the theater speakers. MC Russ Faillaci steps out from backstage and welcomes the audience to a show "where every night, actors teeter between success and absolute disaster ... and either way, it's a lot of fun."

Over the next 90 minutes, Faillaci and three energetic Madcap actors never come close to disaster. Instead, they improvise their way through several scenarios with crowd-pleasing results.

By the end, when the four are running through an improv game called "forward/reverse" ? where the actors make up a story and perform it backwards and forwards on command ? things have turned laugh-until-your-face-hurts funny.

Among the wildly amused are preteens with a parent, high-school kids, college-aged young adults, married couples, co-workers out for a beer after the work week is finished and a grandmotherly woman surely in her 70s.

All of which points out what makes Madcap unique on the local nightclub comedy scene: The improv theater at the Westminster Promenade is family friendly. That's on purpose, according to Faillaci, a veteran of local improv, and one of eight Madcap co-owners.

For one, Faillaci says the challenge of keeping humor "above the waist" can lead to a better brand of comedy. "I think it takes a smarter comedian to deal with things in a clean manner," he says.

On this particular Friday night, the good, clean funny includes a scenario where Faillaci asks the audience to suggest a place where you can have fun for less than $20. Someone shouts out "a thrift store," and soon three actors are creating a story on the spot set in a second-hand shop.

But that's not all. Beforehand, Faillaci had asked members of the audience to write one-line sentences on pieces of paper, then he spreads them on the stage. The actors must pick up the papers, read a sentence and incorporate it into the story.

IF YOU GO

WHAT? Madcap Improv Theater

WHEN? 7 p.m. Thursdays, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

WHERE? 10679 Westminster Blvd., Westminster

TICKETS? $18

INFO? (303) 460-3864 or www.madcapimprov.com

Before long, the Madcap audience is guffawing at a scene filled with silly non sequiturs, where a young man is asking his girlfriend to marry him inside an ARC store.

Another bit that goes well is called "spelling bee." One actor introduces two other actors as one symbiotic character, then solicits from the audience nonsensical words never before uttered, which the two actors proceed to spell, use in a sentence and define. Judging by the laughter from young and not-so-young alike, the results are simultaneously clever, goofy and sidesplitting.


All in the family

One of the actors is Brian Harper, who's been doing improv for 10 years. Harper, 33, is also a Madcap co-owner, and thinks the time is ripe for family friendly entertainment.

"We wanted to find ways that families can stay connected right now when everyone is so busy ? students are all involved in extracurricular activities, both mom and dad have to work, with the information age, everything is so fast ? we wanted to try and create a time where people could slow down," Harper says.

Staying clean was also a business decision.

"You open up your audience," Faillaci says. "Your demographic is a lot bigger. We wanted to reach as many people as possible."

The theater first opened its doors three months ago. According to Faillaci, roughly 75 percent of its audiences have been 21 and older, the rest younger. Madcap offers appetizers, sandwiches, beer, wine and soda on its menu. The theater has public performances three nights a week, and also offers improv and hip-hop dance classes, and private improv shows.

Madcap is a bit of a family affair on stage and behind the scenes, as well. Four couples have a share in the ownership, including Faillaci and his wife, actor Nicole Costello-Faillaci, and Harper and his wife, actor Renee Ashe.

Faillaci grew up in Westminster, graduated from Colorado State University then studied theater in Pasadena, Calif. He moved back to Colorado in 1999 with hopes of opening a comedy club. He met Harper, Ashe and fellow co-owner and actor Garrett Gilhooly at Denver's Impulse Theater, the area's longest-running improv club, where they worked together for several years before opening Madcap.

Improv theater distinguishes itself from "Saturday Night Live"-style sketch comedy or standup comedy in that the actors start with a game or set-up, then make up all their lines as they go along. While improv theaters have been around for more than two decades now, it really wasn't popularized until "Whose Line is it Anyway?" found a regular home on American television beginning in 1998.

Harper says he and the Madcap actors still find themselves educating audiences about what improv is. Faillaci says he fields calls regularly from folks asking which stand-up comedian is headlining a particular night.


Light show

While the improv format sets it apart from stand-up clubs, it's Madcap's high-tech sound and light system that distinguishes it from some of the other improv clubs in the area. The theater, which seats 160 people, includes 10 state-of-the-art stage lights, which can rotate from their spots atop the stage.

Sound and light operator Ben Skigen manipulates the technical elements from a booth in the back of the theater, and improvises sound and light cues right along with the actors. If an actor comes out and takes a suggestion from the audience that moves him toward playing a ghoulish character, Skigen pipes in frightful organ chords. If a developing scene calls for a western theme, the clippity clop of horse hooves may hover in the air.

Skigen, Faillaci and the other actors control what's said and heard on-stage, and keep things funny without turning to blue humor. But, Faillaci admits, there's another element to the live, improvised show that's sometimes more difficult to corral.

At one point during the recent Friday night show, when Faillaci asked the audience to shout out an emotion the actors could then incorporate into their scene, a man yelled a suggestion that didn't fall under the family friendly category. Faillaci smirked and responded, "Like I said, someone give me an emotion," and moved past the would-be detour.

The bump in the road was soon forgotten.

"We can't control what the audience says, so to be able to deal with those things in a way that turns it into our type of comedy," Faillaci says, "I think people respect that in the end."

Contact Camera Theater Critic Mark Collins at (303) 473-1369.