Theater Without a Net

The English Lovers premiere Between the Lines, an improvished English portrait of modern life in these acts

On The Town | Suzanne Capehart | May 2010

Improvisation is to comedy like dancing on a high wire without a net. This is theater on a flying trapeze. Soaring unbound, it is art intensified by risk.

Without the safety of a script, the actor hangs suspended over the audience, held up only by the quickness of his wit. On a rainy night at the Drachengasse Theater, the English Lovers theater group of Anne Weiner, Bronwynn Mertz-Penzinger, Dennis Kozeluh, Jacob Banigan, Jimmy Libby, Kathy Tanner and Michael Smulik put their brains together to conjure up three original skits out of thin air. Aided only by the excellent musical improvisations of pianist Belush Korenyi and a few wooden chairs, the Lovers masterfully created three different worlds on one stage.

Beginning with small theatrical readings in 1997, the group came into the spotlight by performing a regular, late-night program titled "English for English Lovers" at the Drachengasse. Growing confidence and supplementing their performances by monthly readings at ORF’s Radio Café, in 2002 they shortened the name to "English Lovers" and took it as their own. With past and present members spanning seven countries, including South Africa and Australia, the internal diversity of this charismatic group is only rivaled by their versatility, each actor playing a sharply different role in each skit. I watched a crusty detective transform into a calculus-enthused geek (Kozeluh), a tough-talking jockey become a wannabe ladies man (Libby), and a sidekick henchman morph into a gullible little girl (Tanner).

The versatility is also woven into the creative plots of the stories. Nothing is prepared ahead of time (Well, they must have some way of preparing, but I’m damned if I know what it is!) The themes come from the audience, from two people picked at random. The first: "Describe your earliest memory (riding in a 1939 Citroen). The second: "Name something you’d like to tell a friend but could never find the courage to ("You talk too much"). Then the show begins.  A worldly detective (Kozeluh), who drives a 1939 Citroen, has just met his newest client, the celebrity beauty (Mertz-Penzinger) who needs help catching her cheating husband (Libby) "in the act."

Throughout his performance, Kozeluh spouted a delicious, interior monologue, crafting insights and humor into every breath.  Upon seeing his new client, he confided to the audience, "She had long legs that ended where I didn’t dare look."  The story ended with a shootout between the three characters, and the lady going to jail.

The second story moves from the dark detective’s world to an exclusive conference of veterinarians. A shy, young vet (Libby) painfully attempts to make small talk with the women in the conference, played by Mertz-Penzinger and Weiner. Libby’s performance as an insecure, hapless flirt was real enough to make me cringe with embarrassment.  His desperate social attempts catch the eye of a male-chauvinist vet (Kozeluh), who takes the sorry young man under his wing.  While Kozeluh’s own character makes advances on the head speaker of the conference (Tanner), Mertz-Penzinger’s character tries to convince the young man that just being himself will be sure to get him a girl.  They plan to meet for coffee after the conference.

The third story features a down-and-out father (Libby) with three kids (Kozeluh, Mertz-Penzinger, Tanner), who secretly make him an online-dating profile in hopes that he’ll marry again.  The father, angry but resigned, accidentally presumes his daughter’s piano teacher (Weiner) is one of his online dates.  As it turns out, she’s single as well, and they end up having an impromptu dinner.  Kathy Tanner was spot on in her uncannily accurate imitation of a little girl’s voice, while Kozeluh showed off his acting range once more by portraying quite a convincing geek.

Maybe it was just the immediacy of the stage in the cozy, orange tunnel of the Drachengasse Theater… Or maybe it was the nature of improv itself. But the English Lover’s performance felt more like a gathering of friends on stage than a formal show, making the event all the more enjoyable.  The short, insightful and humorous songs performed by each character in turn were accompanied by out-of-character grins and little chuckles when a word didn’t quite fit with the rest.  Laughing smiles between characters when something didn’t go quite right dotted the show as well, gleaning laughter from the audience too.  The actors and actresses with set scripts, who perfectly execute their lines and perform all cues flawlessly, have the tendency to become larger than life, assuming an identity greater and superior to the mere mortals in the audience.  Such is the allure of theater, but the endearing quality of improv lies in the little imperfections that allow the characters on stage to remain human, and far less intimidating.

Not to imply that the English Lovers’ performance was sprinkled with missteps, quite the contrary! Each complimented the others perfectly, going with the flow and completing one another’s sentences and actions.  Indeed, the small room was fairly buzzing with good vibes and the chemistry of contagious pleasure, and the audience dissolved into the final thumping round of applause.

At the English Lovers, this is indeed theater on a flying trapeze, swinging suspended from the rings of improvisation. And it’s safe to say they don’t plan on falling any time soon.


"Between the Lines"

April 12-24, Tues-Mon, 20:00

Theater an der Drachengasse

1., Fleishmarkt 22

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