‘The Naked Stage’ undresses improv format for inventive three-act play

Aurora Theatre Company_Courtesy
Aurora Theatre Company/Courtesy

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“The Naked Stage,” from the perspective of traditional theater, was not a good play. Perhaps it was even an awful play. There’s a high chance nobody in the audience would want to see a show with that exact script and that exact set again. But that’s precisely the joy of it.

For 10 nights until Oct. 16, the Aurora Theater Company is hosting “The Naked Stage,” featuring actors (Kathryn Zdan, Lisa Rowland, Regina Saisi, Tim Orr), and lighting and sound designers (Remi Frazier, Ana Nelson) from the Improv Playhouse of San Francisco. “The Naked Stage” is a narrative long-form improvisation which, as its name implies, compels the cast to ad-lib a three-act play.

The actors open the show with casual introductions and a request for set ideas, establishing an instant atmosphere of intimacy. It feels like the whole thing is some great, big experiment where we are somehow partly responsible for how the show turns out, which immediately elicits a great, collective interest in the set-up.

Despite the ever-changing nature of improv shows, some parts of “The Naked Stage” are the same. The actors pace across the stage taking turns building the set out of large black boxes, wooden chairs and sheer creativity. Each actor then constructs a unique character, often wobbling through their initial dialogue until they find their footing in a back-story and the beginnings of a plot arc.

On opening night, the play was situated in an old, timeworn church sanctuary, featuring an imaginary skylight, wine cellar and basketball team portraits. Ten or so minutes after finishing the stage design, all four actors stood on stage, an eclectic mix of ingenuity in the form of Moq: a former foreign exchange student from Latvia with a vow of silence, Corolla: the older, easily excitable church caretaker of 70 years, Daniel: the Irish Catholic priest who has seen the church through all its Mormon, Baptist and nondenominational days, and Annie Mae: a first-time empty-nester who returns to the church for peace and finds it far from the centerpiece of the community she expected it to be.

The adrenaline is palpable as the actors reveal the people they will become for the next 120 minutes. They set each other up, asking questions so their peers can evolve their stories and push each other playfully to be inventive with the play’s plot. Their confusion over the timeline and relative ages and weird developing details is genuine and unrehearsed, only expressed through the lens of their characters.

Naturally, this creates a plethora of awkward lulls. There’s one long scene where the silent Moq laboriously carries massive imaginary rocks in from the garden off stage left and Corolla sits puzzled in a chair questioning her motives loudly. The incident quickly lost its small potential for laughs. But a few minutes later Daniel entered with a distraction, a change of direction — evidence for the forgiving improv format.

In the middle of Act 2, Daniel and Corolla set up a scene in which they go to the confessional and discuss Corolla’s heartache about the state of the church and her growing doubt in a higher power. The audience, in effect, is left with a weakly developed moment of introspection.

But these are critiques of improv as a basis for the narrative more than the actors and the show they created.

Given the nonexistent amount of time they had to plan it out, “The Naked Stage” had conflict resolutions and character development that were surprisingly deep. The actors achieved a story that began and resolved itself entirely on their instantaneous genius, incorporating every part of the set and resolving four different character storylines. The form of acting improv they executed left the audience laughing at the successful spontaneous humor, sure. But we were also wondering how the heck they did it.

It wasn’t a very good play. But it was an incredible play for something that was made up entirely as it happened.

Contact Olivia Jerram at [email protected].