When Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm were compiling their infamous collection of prevalent folk tales in the 19th century, they probably didn’t imagine that their work would one day be lovingly spoofed by a gaggle of Bay Area-based improvisers in tie-dyed pajamas.
But in Synergy Theater’s recent performance of “Spontaneous Brothers Grimm: The Improvised Collection” at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, this quirky homage was precisely what came to pass. The improvisers of Synergy Theater were outfitted with only a few masks and scarves as props. Audience suggestions ranged from “shrimp” to “sexy plumber,” and inspired an array of improvised fairy tales, each varying in form, length and content while reveling in a lively sense of humor.
The collection presented at this particular performance included stories about sloths turned teenagers, a prince in search of puberty and a war between Lilliputians and a faction of nearby goat people. The performance’s anthology format served Synergy Theater well, allowing them to explore these zany scenarios without having to commit to one for too long and risk leaving the audience bored. The variance of tales meant that no one performer could lay sole claim to the spotlight; as the cast of characters shifted around with each story, almost every performer got a chance to play protagonist or get in a gut-busting line.
While the longer tales ran about 15 to 20 minutes and required the performers to keep up continuity and stage whole scenes — tools necessary for long-form improvisation — others were adaptations of typical short-form games. These included pairs of improvisers telling a short story but switching off on every word, or a lineup of improvisers collectively weaving a narrative and alternating who was speaking based on who Kenn Adams, Synergy Theater’s artistic director, was pointing at. At one point, Adams told a tale all by his lonesome, fitting audience suggestions — “inchworm,” “a chicken in handcuffs,” “butter” into his monologue as they were blurted out.
Such a variety act is no easy feat, requiring Synergy Theater’s members to shift between two modes of improv in an effort to constantly change it up. The fact that they’re able to pull it off and still have a great deal of fun with each other is a testament to the company members’ understanding of the art form and their great comfort with one another — necessary ingredients in any comedy troupe.
In addition to making great use of the various conventions of improv, Synergy Theater’s performance played with its source material in effective ways. Characters would often fill in the gaps between dialogue with internal monologue or imagined action lines, as if one was reading a book. Entrances were often prefaced with outbursts in the vein of “suddenly, the wizard came rushing in!” Stories with the expected antiquated subjects of queens and princes still found room to fit in contemporary humor. At one point, in order to emphasize how slow a talking animal was, another improviser whizzed by her and enthusiastically confessed his employment at the DMV.
Perhaps best of all, in true fairytale fashion, almost every story was given a moral — the uncontested best of which was watching a trio of male characters learn about the magic that results from owning up to their toxic masculinity. Surely, the Grimm brothers would have been proud of that one.
Of course, nothing made up on the spot can be perfect. Some stories were uneven, or inspired less laughter. Every once in a while, improvisers would talk over each other or come onstage when they weren’t supposed to, inspiring the requisite, jokey “what are you doing here?”
But the operative word there is “jokey,” because mistakes, when embraced, are some of the funniest stuff there is. After all, when you can boast great improv that juggles lots of narrative threads and styles, a comfortable team dynamic and an ability to have unabashed fun onstage, any audience will be willing to forgive you for the occasional silly mistake. Perhaps that, above all, is the moral of Synergy Theater’s fairytale.
Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].