When 3 FOR ALL — a seasoned improvisational comedy trio composed of Rafe Chase, Stephen Kearin and Tim Orr — waltzed onto the stage of San Francisco’s BATS Improv Theater last Sunday night, the average audience member might have expected a little more pomp and circumstance. After all, the venue was packed, and the trio, there for one night only, boasts about 100 years of improv experience between them. They’d have been forgiven for indulging themselves.
But in lieu of pomp or circumstance, 3 FOR ALL walked onto stage with only three chairs, one piano and a simple request: “May we have one word to get started?”
Incidentally, these would be the only ingredients necessary for a lively, unpredictable, and, of course, hilarious collection of improvised scenes.
The performance, arranged to support “Light Up BATS!,” a fundraiser for new lighting equipment for the BATS Improv Theater, was split into two distinct halves. The first half was a collection of mostly unrelated scenes, inspired by audience suggestions ranging from “button” to “stormy” to “monkey,” which saw Chase, Kearin and Orr switching characters and premises at a rapid pace. The second was an improvised, audience requested movie titled “The Lights Went Out,” with a surprisingly cohesive plot that included illicit criminal dealings, horse races, Spider-Man comics and a dead mother’s ghost.
Though both halves delighted in unique ways, the first half was more energetic than its successor. The collection of disparate, short scenes allowed 3 FOR ALL to mine the most laughs possible from a simple premise before moving on to the next scene, spurred by lighting improviser Glen Eastman’s ability to cut any given scene at the appropriate moment. These tights edits meant no joke felt belabored (a near miracle for any comedy act). This was something the second act, mired in ironing out the plot details of the fictionalized “movie,” didn’t quite manage to replicate; the need to tie up loose ends sometimes meant that the laughs died down as scenes ran a tad too long.
Throughout both acts, musical improviser Win Meyerson was also present to (literally) jazz up the proceedings. From his station at the piano, Meyerson improvised atmospheric music to underscore certain scenes, and, on cue, provided the instrumental backdrop for the performers onstage to sing solos or impassioned duets on the spot.
Such crowd-pleasing spontaneous musical numbers require not only an adaptable pianist, but strong bonds between the singers, something that 3 FOR ALL clearly has in spades. Chase, Kearin and Orr worked together seamlessly, showcasing their abilities to anticipate each others’ moves and gift each other with opportunities to occupy the spotlight. This coalescence made for some of the best moments of the night, such as Kearin and Orr acting as uptight churchgoers valiantly attempting to speak made-up Bible verses in unison or Chase being forced to “recap” a supposedly long and grandiose speech that he’d mentioned earlier in the scene.
Shining through the layered interplay of the improvisers was the foundation of the performance. That is, if one had to pick a standout from the three, it would be Kearin, who played an eclectic mix of characters throughout the night, including a nerdy child with a retainer, a monkey who throws his own poop and a vindictive robot. Kearin was so skilled at working the audience he managed to inspire the biggest laughs of the night while he wasn’t even onstage, spouting off silly sound effects into an offstage microphone that had his fellow improvisers cracking up midscene.
Most of the scenes of the night replicated this success, comprised of easy, coordinated jokes that seemed seamless. Of course, no improv show escapes some inconsistencies; some scenes ended on an odd note, and some laughter was louder than others. But it’s in calling out inconsistencies and reveling in one’s own mistakes that the best improvisers have the most fun. At one point in the show, Chase’s character boasted about cutting a multitude of thin layers of cake with a knife, and Kearin fittingly seized the moment: “What the FUCK else would you cut it with?”
Any other person might have been embarrassed at having their mistake called out, but not the men of 3 FOR ALL. After all, the audience laughed — and making that happen with only three chairs, one piano and a willingness to laugh at yourself is a special kind of magic.
Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].