Anthony J. Piccione
Last summer, during the 20th and final summer season of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, was when I first heard of the Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble, aka “IRTE”. I had heard many good things from other audience members about the variety shows they put on, but unfortunately, their production that year was not among the ones I was able to go see, due to scheduling related to my own production that was in that year’s festival. However, their new season of shows for 2018 recently kicked off with the mystery spoof What’s New, Groovy Gang, and thankfully, I had the chance to catch it during one of its final performances.
Formed seven seasons ago by veteran improv performer Nannette Deasy, who also stars in this show, IRTE describes itself as “an ensemble of comedy actors and writers” that create “original themed improvisational shows, following the basic model of traditional repertory theatre.” Judging by both this recent show I saw, as well as the promotional materials, it seems as if each show is semi-scripted but with plenty of improvisational elements that come that night, and ultimately revolves around a given theme or genre that distinguishes that particular show. In this particular case, the show captures the theme and essence of spooky but silly cartoons, like the ones that many of us enjoyed as kids.
Staged in the very intimate space of the Producers Club Prince Theatre, Groovy Gang starts off with one of the actors appearing in drag and giving one audience member a chance to make a paper bag mask of a monster of their choice (in this case, a cross between a vampire and Frankenstein) and another audience member a chance to say where the show would take place (a graveyard), and then hands out small cereal bags before departing and paving the way for the audience to go on an adventure that personally gave me a certain degree of nostalgia, in that it felt reminiscent of Scooby Doo and other similar Saturday morning TV shows, except with a dose of more mature humor that teens and adults are particularly likely to enjoy.
The show is performed by a mixture of performers who are part of the official IRTE ensemble – Ms. Deasy, Robert Baumgardner, Curt Dixon, Mike Hauschild, and Jamie Maloney – as well as a few guest performers – Bridget Knapp, Alexandra Palmer, and Steve Tardio. You’d never know who was a guest and who was not without looking at the program, though, as they all deliver performances that are equally full of energy and are near-perfect replicas of the classic character types they seem to be portraying, making you feel as if you’re watching a live-action cartoon, as opposed to a serious dramatic performance. (Given the nature of this show, keep in mind that I mean that in the best possible way.) Not a bad way to spend a Friday or Saturday night, if you ask me.
The only aspect of the show that felt somewhat off was the appearance of this show’s musical guest star (which is apparently an aspect that is part of each of their shows): lyricist/comedian ReW STaRR. It’s not that the musical performer herself was bad, and I certainly like the idea of a musical guest appearing in the show’s programming. However, it did feel like it could have been two songs shorter than the four that were performed, and the 90s alternative vibe of the songs themselves – which included a mildly amusing number about her wanting Robert Mueller to “investigate” her – did feel out of place with the whimsical, cartoonish tone of the rest of the show. Nonetheless, this did not detract greatly from the overall experience.
While I especially love all the darker, more political and avant-garde works that the indie theatre scene frequently has to offer, it’s also nice to occasionally get a break from that, and just see a show that’s pure fun simply for the sake of being pure fun. With this show, IRTE showed me that they’re no stranger to presenting exactly that to New York audiences. While I ended up catching this show late in its run, on its last weekend of performances, IRTE will have three more shows coming over the next few months. For those of you looking for some old fashioned farcical comedy, you should certainly consider watching for their next few shows.
“What’s New, Groovy Gang?!” – presented by Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble – ended its run at the Producers Club on March 31st. For more information on upcoming shows by this company, please visit www.irteinfo.com.