Curtain Calls

By Donald V. Calamia

Preview: 'I Know What You Improv'd Last Summer'

Horror-themed improv comedy is Project Pangea's summer spook-tacular

Have you ever had a burning desire to kill an actor?

Not in a way that would find you standing handcuffed before a judge pleading your innocence, of course. But rather as part of a fun-filled evening of improvisational theater where you help stage not only WHO dies, but HOW?

"This is going to be a very different show," Isaac Ellis, creator of Project Pangea told BTL last week during a rehearsal of his troupe's upcoming production, "I Know What You Improv'd Last Summer," that opens July 29 at the TreeTown Performance Festival.

The year-old, Ann Arbor-based improv troupe has staged only two prior shows, "Search for Intelligent Improv in the Universe" and "Improv to Eggnog", but it has already developed a loyal following.

And Ellis thinks he knows why.

"We seem to be one of the few troupes that really [is totally improvised]; we have nothing planned."

Until this new show, that is.

"We're still playing all the [improvisational] games we've played before, but with two dance numbers and a plot that runs through the second act where [improvisers] get killed off as the games go on, and we get smaller and smaller games because we have less and less people [to play them]."

And then there’s the Wheel of Death.

"The audience is involved in the way people are going to die, and who's going to die," Ellis said. "So the audience has complete control over the games, the plot and pretty much the entire show. We just sit there and play off whatever they give us."

That's the key, added Jim Posante, the show's choreographer. "It's all [based] on audience suggestion."

Ellis' current six-person troupe features a diverse group of gay and straight actors with improv experience that ranges from none to tons.

Ellis, for example, got his start as an improviser while majoring in theater at Adrian College where Project Pangea was created. "At the time there was no improv anywhere in the area, so I decided I wanted to do it as an independent study for my senior project with the end goal being to form a troupe that was good enough and knew enough so that we could put on shows."

They were and they did, and the troupe became a campus hit.

Posante, a respected teacher and longtime professional thespian, has directed and choreographed more than 100 musicals, including a show he choreographed for Second City Chicago, but "I Know What You Improv'd Last Summer" marks his debut as an improviser. "I was just going to choreograph it, so when Isaac asked me to do this, it took a little while to convince me."

Ellis added, "But then I pushed him enough to say yes!"

Then there's Ahmed Muslimani.

"Ahmed has studied it and done it a bit, but he's always hated it," Ellis laughed. "But he decided to try this, and he’s doing a fabulous job."

Also in the cast are Laurel Hufano, Gary Lehman, Kate Orr and Callie McKee.

What impresses Ellis and Posante the most about their troupe is the positive energy that flows amongst its members.

"It's fun to be in this environment," Posante said. "There's a relaxed quality not having alpha males around. Isaac is clearly the director, and no one is competing for that role. Having gay men involved is a factor. I really think that helps promote the sharing and the camaraderie."

It is inevitable that men will be called upon to play women in the show, and women will play men, of course. And don't be surprised if two men jump at the chance to play "sisters" when a scene calls for a familial relationship.

"It's the luck of the draw of who's playing a game and whatever the audience yells out," Ellis said. "Everyone just goes with it."

Plus, no one remains unscathed by show's end.

"We don't leave anyone alone," Ellis chuckled. "Everyone gets insulted at one point!"

Long-term plans for Project Pangea, Ellis said, include more than just improvisational comedy. "I'm hoping it to be a playwrights' group, a full stage company, a dance company, a management company and an art gallery."

In other words, like the hypothetical land mass of the ancient world from which his company derived its name, Ellis wants his company to be the conduit that pulls the world back together through the arts.

In the meantime, however, the energetic Ellis is working towards finding a regular spot on Performance Network's schedule for Project Pangea.

"We've kind of become the resident improv company at the Network, so we're in the talks for next year about trying to find something to do, like a regular weekly slot, or certain times when we'll do late night shows."

"I Know What You Improv'd Last Summer" Staged Thursday through Sunday by Project Pangea as part of the TreeTown Performance Festival at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor, July 29 through Aug. 8. Tickets: $20. 734-663-0681."

: Brief Bits: The '313'

He's back!

Fresh from another season on ABC-TV's "According to Jim," Pontiac-born Larry Joe Campbell has returned home and to Planet Ant with yet another summertime original comedy treat.

Joining Campbell in "The '313'" will be several of his Los Angeles-based friends, and fellow Second City alumni, Nyima Funk, Joshua Funk, Marc Evan Jackson and Andy Cobb.

The show is described as a fast-paced, high energy, multimedia, improvisational comedy freight train that weaves between long form improvisation, short form improvised games and songs, and original movie shorts.

"The energy at Planet Ant is something I believe in," Campbell told BTL last year. "They're willing to try almost anything."

Campbell, who majored in theater at Central Michigan University and earned a master's degree from Wayne State University's Hilberry Theatre, worked locally at Lansing's BoarsHead Theatre and Second City Detroit before relocating to the west coast. He just completed his third season in the role of Andy on the Jim Belushi comedy series.

The affable actor brought his "sort-of" one-man show, "Terry vs. The Towel Lady," to Planet Ant last summer. The adult comedy revealed a side of the actor television audiences will never see, his bare derriere, but its success paved the way for Campbell's return beginning July 23.

"The '313'" will be Planet Ant's second show this season to be held at the nearby, and larger – Hastings Street Ballroom. Entertainment follows each performance.

"The '313'" Staged by Planet Ant at the Hastings Street Ballroom, 715 E. Milwaukee St. at Oakland, Detroit, July 23 - 24 & 29 -31. Tickets: $15. 313-365-4948.


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