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Recent changes and challenges have invigorated Richmond's two professional improv-comedy troupes. 

Troupe Strength

It's easy to point a finger at the negative influences of "reality TV" — the glorification of duplicity, the endorsement of voyeurism, the refusal of former "Survivor" castaways to fade into obscurity, etc. But for all the harm they've done, "Big Brother" and its kin have had at least one positive side effect.

"Reality TV is one of the reasons improv is so popular again. People like the idea of a show that is spontaneous," says Christine Walters, founder and manager of Richmond's ComedySportz improvisational-comedy troupe.

And a live improv show has one up on television, Walters asserts. "Improv is reality," says Walters, not reality filtered by editors and producers. "And most of all, people like it because they get to be a part of it."

Judging from the crowd attending a ComedySportz show on a recent balmy Saturday night, people don't just like it, they love it. During the show, audience members were all too eager to contribute suggestions, judgments, and, for one skit, even articles of clothing.

If this is reality, it's certainly a fractured one. Thanks to the wacky ideas from the crowd, ComedySportz is a place where you might see scenes of people being fatally wounded with a plunger or visitors licking the sand at Myrtle Beach.

Not long ago, reality for Walters and her players was not so fun-filled. The 5-year-old troupe lost its first home when the Features Movie Theatre on Broad Street closed. Then, last spring, their adopted home, Damon's at Innsbrook, also shut down. But luckily, Walters had been thinking ahead.

"When we went to Damon's, we started working on getting our own venue," she explains. "We had no idea that Damon's was going to close, but, when it did, we at least had a process in motion." After being out of commission for over three months, last month ComedySportz opened their new venue, dubbed Comedy Alley, in a strip mall on Staples Mill Road.

The new facility is a simple affair that you could mistake for a family-style restaurant if it weren't for the stage in the back of the room. But even if it is modest, it is operated solely by ComedySportz, giving the company much greater flexibility than it has enjoyed in the past. Though only offering shows on Friday and Saturday nights currently, Walters is open to expansion. "We'll play as often as my players want to play," she says. The first step may be to offer more sketch-oriented shows on Thursday nights.

While ComedySportz has been establishing its new venue, the other major improv troupe in town has been exploring a new format. The Take 5 Comedy Troupe has a regular Wednesday-night show at the homey small-town eatery Ashland Coffee and Tea. That stability has allowed the Troupe to explore ways to add variety to the standard improv lineup, keeping repeat customers interested and increasing the challenge for the actors.

Their latest production, called "Cinemania," follows the rise of a young actor from his start in small-town theater to Broadway and then to Hollywood. This career progression is dramatized through improv games, many identical to the ones ComedySportz uses. The challenge for the Take 5 players becomes maintaining a couple of characters while still being open to the infinite possibilities that arise from audience suggestions.

"The new format is more theatrical," explains Jennifer Frank, one of the managers of Take 5 and a longtime troupe member. She says that the new format keeps the Take 5 players on their toes: "They really respond to a challenge."

Take 5, founded by Jeff Clevenger, has been around in various formats for more than eight years. Frank attributes the group's long-term success to the unique nature of improv. "Improv is community-based," she says. "If you go to see Whoopi or Jerry Seinfeld, you are just a consumer buying a product. But people become a part of our shows."

So, from a critic's point of view, how do the two comedy shows stack up? It's hard to make any blanket statements because every improv performance is different. But the one thing ComedySportz and Take 5 both have going for them is a crew of quick-witted and agile performers. Both troupes rely on a performance framework that is a bit contrived: Few people really care which of the ComedySportz teams actually wins, for instance, and the "rising-star" plotline in "Cinemania" sputters as often as it succeeds.

But still, each framework provides just the right fodder for the most innovative of the troupe's players. The ComedySportz show I saw was highlighted by Chris Hauser's erudite wit. In the "Da Do Rap Rap" game where players make up raps to go along with a name suggested by the crowd, Hauser always found the unexpected, peppering his rhymes with mentions of Yassar Arafat and Jean-Paul Sartre. Jason Keeley's construction of a musical ode to cheese as part of the "Boy Band Jam" skit demonstrated both quick wit and impressive mental agility.

Take 5 has its share of stars as well. At the opening performance of "Cinemania," Danny Junod was the standout. He played Franklin Mintz, who was chosen to be the show's rising star based on his perfectly smarmy inspirational monologue about a worthless act of ecological activism. But other players also found moments to shine, particularly Patrick Raines, who tossed out hilarious quips during a mock hopscotch game with Junod.

It's impossible to know whether a television trend is spurring new life in Richmond's comedy troupes. It may just be the enduring reality that watching improv — particularly fine-tuned, expertly acted improv — is just good guilt-free fun.

And if someone is acting like Richard Hatch or Kimmi during one of these shows, you can be thankful that, in a split second, he or she will be doing something much more entertaining. Killing someone with a plunger, for
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