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A CurtainUp Review
Freestyle Repertory Theatre in TheatreSports
by Brad Bradley

Freestyle Rep has to be the best theater bargain in New York city. The bargain is undeniable in monetary terms, as the ever-intrepid company of mostly quite young actors is charging only $5 a performance. But the bargain goes deeper than finance. Most theatergoers have at most one or two times a week to attend a show, if that often, and the time spent with Freestyle is well-rewarded in entertainment. As a hard-boiled critic who finds more than a few Broadway level productions a strain, I probably laughed more here than at Broadway's ultra-high profile The Producers (on the other end of the economic theatrical scale, to say the least). More than that, I was enchanted by the troupe's unfailing ingenuity, even in the few set-ups that went nowhere.

Six actors are divided into two competitive teams, Red tee-shirts vs. Blue, with a seventh player acting a referee, and another trio of pre-designated judges entrusted with rating each challenge from one to five points on several aspects of effectiveness. Although the celebrity judge on my night attended was a no-show, the civilian judges were an asset to the evening's momentum and energy and the performance was a clear winner, its buoyancy retained throughout the evening.

The current septet of players is agile, creative, and fearless. Their bearded executive director Mike Durkin is a clear leader in techniques, combining the physical invention of an actor with the quick wit of a stand-up comic. He is well matched by his fellow scriptless thespians, especially by curly-haired Matty Merrill and sassy Laura Livingston, the latter who acts as artistic director and on the night attended was host/referee.

TheatreSports, a trademarked name, is now practiced by licensed companies in fifty cities from eleven countries. Created over 30 years ago in London, the concept came to Canada with its creator Keith Johnstone, and later spread to the USA. Freestyle Rep is the sole New York operation incorporating TheatreSports into its repertory, and presenting up to three mainstage productions each year with a full-time professional company.

One of the notable techniques on display has actors "intertwined" both physically and verbally, an in effect monologue constantly reassigned by the referee to another member of the team of three. This was jolly fun, much more successful than a scene set in a Seattle graveyard in which three performers alternately played two characters. At this particular graveyard my head was left spinning out of focus. Later, a diverting and brain-teasing vignette, set in a gas station, had the team members limited to one-syllable words for their quick-witted improvisations. Another scene, forcing the players to switch endlessly from English to gibberish and back again at the referee's signal, was a panic of hilarity. The masterful inventions of gibberish as created by Messrs. Durkin and Merrill drew to mind some of the more memorable "Show of Shows" scenarios featuring Sid Caesar.

Act II brought a puppet style scene in which volunteers from the audience literally lent their arms in lieu of the actors' upper limbs. Appealing to Three Stooges level of humor was a scene in which an actor was "tortured" by a fellow player into having to speak after filling his mouth with a soft drink combined with Alka-Seltzer tablets. Gross, but undeniably funny. These players are more than ready for the game, and give the audience an experience that confirms that improv delivers far more than we ever would expect. Bravo, Freestyle Rep.

Created by the company with the help of the audience.
Performed by the company: Jessica Calter, William Cefalo, Mike Durkin, Laura Livingston, Matty Merrill, Laura Valpey and Julianne Ziegler
Technical Improvisor: Patrick Rice
Trilogy Theatre, 341 West 44th Street (2nd floor) 212-672-8202
Running time: 90 minutes including intermission
Performances every Sunday at 7 p.m.
Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on October 28 performance
The show returns for an open ended run -- same place and schedule, beginning January 6, 2002
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