The touring company of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade performed the first of their four scheduled improvised comedy shows in Milwaukee at the Todd Wehr Theater early Friday evening.
The Upright Citizen’s Brigade (aka UCB) performs long-form improv, which is more scene-based, as opposed to short-form, which revolves around games. While shortform improv such as ComedySportz or "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" appeals to a broader audience, long-form is considered more of an art and spends more time developing scenes and characters. The four-person cast of the touring company consisted of John Frusciante, Jon Gabrus, Brandon Gardner and Zack Willis.
The show began with the four just taking the pulse of Milwaukee and learning from the crowd what the big topics around town were. Items such as the President’s visit and the Wisconsin Avenue bridge party were discussed. They then asked for a volunteer from the crowd to interview and ended up speaking with a visiting sportswriter from Chicago. Through this interview, the performers and the audience learned about Chris’s job, his hobbies and about a recent date he went on at the Pasta Tree on Farwell. These nuggets of information were then incorporated as the inspiration to a forty-five minute improvised set.
The highlight of this first set was an extended riff that the quartet did revolving around the existence of an actual pasta tree. What began as a pair of people eating from a tree that grew pasta (including meatballs) led to an epic biblical parody. The red sea of Marinara was parted and the Pasta Tree informed a Noah-like figure to build a giant pasta bowl and fill it with two of each kind of pasta. This all led to a scene set in modern day as a couple struggled with their wedding planning since one person was an atheist and their partner grew up as a traditional Pasta Tree believer.
After a ten minute intermission, the UCB returned and requested a single word for the inspiration of their next set. While they received the word "onomonopia", the immediate scene inspired by the word became so sidetracked that it ultimately had nothing to do with what was supposed to be the source. This opening scene, about an advertising agency trying to come up with a new campaign for Old Spice, established what would be a touchstone throughout the set. Even after introducing such far-fetched characters as a Robot Larry Csonka, the performance flowed back to the development of the Old Spice ad. This led to a major payoff when the audience got to see the final product of the commercial these meetings developed. The intentional mess of a commercial (which featured other products catchphrases, Flo from the Progressive ads, and far more product placement for Bud Light even though Old Spice was the client) provided some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
At times during the second set, it felt like the group was straining to try to bring back a previous reference, often to the detriment of the scene. In improvisational comedy, what makes some of the top groups great is the bond that the performers share on-stage. Unfortunately, at times it didn’t seem like the four members were in sync with one another. At several points, they talked over each other and weren’t listening to the offers that were being made to build on the scene. These moments weren’t helped by the fact that a pocket of the audience continued to talk throughout the entire show. While improvisational comedy isn’t placed on the same pedestal as a scripted play, it is still a live theatrical performance. Even after the performers tried to put an end to the noise by making a passing reference to the chatter in a scene, it still continued non-stop.
While all cylinders might not have been firing at once throughout the evening, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade still put on a very funny show. Although improv comedy relies on the group to work together to support one another, the standout of the four performers was John Frusciante. He seemed to pay the most attention to the specifics of each scene and made a perfect callback to an earlier character of his to finish the night.
The Upright Citizen’s Brigade has two more shows at the Todd Wehr Theater on Saturday at 7:30 and 10:30. This is exactly the kind of alternative programming that Milwaukee needs more of, so the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts deserves commendation for trying something so bold. At the same time, it should be made clear to treat this like any other theatrical performance and not talk…unless you’re being asked for a suggestion or to explain one of Milwaukee’s many nuances.
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