Arts Listings

The Theater: Comedy Cohabitation Off Union Square

By Michael Katz, Special to the Planet
Friday October 27, 2006

San Francisco’s Shelton Theater, near Union Square, is a busy place. With at least six theater companies sharing four stages, the house’s logistics alone are almost a bedroom farce. So with farce in mind, I caught two of the resident comedy troupes last week. 

In comedy as in bedroom intrigues, timing can be everything. Not just for performers, but for audience members. The Un-Scripted Theater Company’s improvised Supertrain show is at its peak, but you have only until tomorrow to catch its last two performances (Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.).  

Meanwhile, Richter Scale’s new Declaration of Codependence is an evening of comedy sketches still finding its stride as a unified show. But it’s promising, and will evolve as it runs for another month (Saturdays at 10 p.m. and Sundays at 8 p.m., through Nov. 26). 

Un-Scripted’s Supertrain is an evening-long improvisation built around audience suggestions, using one consistent frame: All the action takes place on a train. In the performance that I saw, the comedy never derailed and was often hilarious. 

The action rapidly took off on two surreal tracks—both “theme” cars randomly inspired by audience suggestions. In the “Fertility Car,” a gaggle of professionals tried to help a couple (Darlene Sorensen and Kurt Bodden) achieve parenthood and prepare for it—not necessarily in the expected order. 

In the “Screwball Gothic” car, a young man expecting a relaxing vacation (Alan Goy) was instead recruited to slay the train’s murderous stowaway, a werewolf-like “Beast.” 

If those premises don’t sound wacky enough, the results soon got even more unlikely. In the Fertility Car, a lounge singer (Derek Cochran) improvised flawlessly rhyming songs about various challenges of parenthood, as called out by audience members. 

Later, Sorensen and Bodden consulted an onboard counselor (Dave Dyson, an El Cerrito resident who’s also the show’s director—yes, improvisers have directors). At which point two “Inner Wrestlers” (Cochran again, and Mandy Khoshnevisan) suddenly emerged to fight out the couple’s unspoken hostilities. 

Amid a consistently strong cast, Bodden and Cochran—both credited as guest performers for the troupe’s 2006 season—were the two stand-outs. Bodden, a lanky comic who looks and moves uncannily like Jim Carrey, grabs you with affable understatement. 

Cochran, who’s NBA tall, effortlessly inhabited “big” roles like the wrestler and an evangelical preacher. But in a flash, he would shrink down to the wispy old oracle who tutored Goy about werewolf-slaying, using a vaguely British accent like James Mason’s. 

Un-Scripted spun off in 2002 from the region’s most established improv group, BATS. After Saturday, they’ll be on hiatus until mounting a Valentine’s Day fund-raiser. 

Richter Scale, an even newer sketch-comedy troupe, was the freshest act I saw at last July’s San Francisco Theater Festival. Their forte is material that’s simultaneously very political and very funny. Their new show reprises some of the best sketches that brought down the house in July. 

“Earth Elementary” brings the U.N. down to the scale of a classroom. There, an idealistic teacher (Berkeley native Tenaya Hurst) tries to keep an unruly kid named America from throwing lethal paper airplanes. You’ll have to see the show to find out how America manipulates classmates India, China, and England. 

“Dot-Com High” similarly portrays a virtual world, using kids who’ve graduated to socially competitive teenagers. In the inner circle, YouTube is on the phone to MySpace. But awkward Friendster is SO last year—she can’t find a friend. Other Internet icons also appear, in ways I won’t reveal. Digital humor can be a deadly oxymoron, and Richter Scale shows unusual skill in making this sketch genuinely funny. 

Also great is a post-global-warming tour of the former San Francisco. And there are well executed musical spoofs of everything from Handel’s Messiah to country music (the latter fronted by Brett Duggan). 

The new show is strung around a theme of dependency. As of opening weekend, some of the new material didn’t obviously fit. And some bits didn’t entirely take off—for example, a running gag in which a patient keeps ambushing his doctor in unlikely places to demand advertised prescription drugs. 

But others worked great. In one new sketch, a father can help his young son understand American history only by invoking brand names. In another, Paris Hilton (Holly Nugent) offers cave redecorating tips to Osama bin Laden. 

There are also revealing peeks “inside the Democratic Party think tank,” and some dueling political ads that get very personal—between the voiceover announcers. One of the longest and edgiest sketches, a “Fifth Annual September 11th Awards Show,” came off very  


By next weekend, Director Sammy Wegent told me, Declaration of Codependence will move to a different stage at the Shelton. And the sketches will be reshuffled into a very different order. 

This show should continue to firm up during its run. Richter Scale does risky stuff, and this is a chance to watch a talented sketch group shape something both trenchant and funny. 




Presented by the Un-Scripted Theater Company at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 27-28. $15 general, $10 students and seniors. (415) 869-5384. 



Presented by Richter Scale at 10 p.m. Saturdays and 8 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 26. $20. (615) 268-7893. 


Both shows at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco (between Powell and Mason).