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Improvisation troupe makes fun out of current events

By Robert Hall, Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday July 18, 2002

‘Ripped from the News’ 


We’re in Vietnam in the 1960s, as a tough U.S. marine bends over the trembling local girl he’s about to ravish. “I’m an American,” he growls, leaning ominously nearer, “and this is what we do.” The line is about as politically incorrect as you can get these days—no one is supposed to poke fun at American imperialism—but as the climax of a wild and woolly satire, it brought down the house at the Magic Theater last weekend. 

Want to see this far-out, funny show for yourself? 

Sorry, you can’t. It will never be performed again. 

So why read about a play you can’t see? Because you can see the actors who created it, and that’s what counts. Called “True Fiction Magazine,” they’re a talented local troupe that invents a completely different show each night out of scraps of paper. 

The results are mixed, dud moments alternating with explosions of wit, but if you’re willing to ride out the dead spots, you’ll have a pretty good time. 

“True Fiction Magazine” has been around for fifteen years. Most improv groups specialize in skits, five or 10 minutes at most, but “Magazine” aims for sustained, evening-long narratives. It takes nerve to play this tricky game, but the troupe hits the target often, scoring bull’s-eyes along the way. 

In the show I saw, evil corporate execs kidnapped children and dogs to keep unruly employees in line. That’s just one sample of the off-beat flavor. 

“Magazine” calls its latest outing “Ripped from the News,” for reasons that become obvious once you enter the theater. There you’re greeted by a pile of newspapers, from which you’re invited to tear out a story. These cuttings are then tacked up around the play space, and the actors improvise from them. 

The results? On opening night the stories featured man-made viruses, walking fish, rapacious sea gulls and corporate greed.  

Impossible to meld these into a coherent narrative? “True Fiction Magazine” did it, sort of, by shooting for fun rather than sense, with predictably wacky results. Conjuring a homicidal mom, a fanatic EPA watchdog, a macho pilot, and a dysfunctional brat, they bounced from an Asian street market to a World Com board room to a Kabul-bound plane loaded with bubonic plague. 

They’ve got stopovers in a troubled household where all the servants were named Matilda. 

The effect was mind-bogglingly surreal. Lines like, “I’ve overstepped my intelligence,” tripped over lines like, “Someone has stolen Fluffy,” and, “If I don’t die inside a week, you’re in big trouble.” There were improvised songs, too: “The Walking Fish Blues,” and one that rhymed “Matilda” with “killed ya.” 

The five players, Paul Killam, Craig Neibaur, Diane Rachel, Regina Saisi and Barbara Scott are bright and skilled, and they work together well, giving one another time to slip in and out of every opportunity in the loopy narrative. Joshua Raoul Brody’s mocking music enhances the silliness, and Mark Rachel dims, brightens and tints the lighting effectively. Yet they, and their creation, were a little too polite. I longed for the manic invention of someone like Robin Williams. “True Fiction Magazine” inspired giggles and the occasional bellylaugh, but its material wore thin, and its careful method didn’t take enough chances, so that instead of being shot into the stratosphere, we circled pleasantly before landing with a gentle bounce. 

That’s not bad, and “True Fiction” is a likeable troupe, but I wanted them to lift me out of my seat. That isn’t to say their next one-of-a-kind fabrication won’t fly higher, and I would be unfair if I didn’t report a conversation with a Magic Theater V.I.P., who shall remain nameless. He’d seen “Ripped from the News” a couple of times already. “One night they were good,” he reported, “but the next night they were brilliant.” 

Maybe that’s the way it is with improv: you take your chances, and in the case of “True Fiction Magazine,” the choice between good and brilliant is better than lots of theaters offer.