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(l to r) Niall Ashdown, guest Florie Seery,
Angela Clerkin and Stella Duffy in Lifegame
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
They call it Lifegame. It's a clever, high-concept show that further breaks down the increasingly flimsy barrier between audience and performer. We used to take it for granted when we went to the theater that someone would have written a script, actors would have learned lines, there would be a set and costumes, and a story would unfold before us. In Lifegame, the audience--or, at least, one audience member--brings the script to The Jane Street Theatre in the form of his or her life.

This is how it works: Someone is chosen in advance to have his or her life theatricalized on stage. Interviewed in front of the audience, that person provides information that becomes grist for a troupe of improv artists who act out what may or may not be key moments in the subject's life. Both the person chosen and the audience get to witness those moments played for comedy and/or poignancy by estimable members of The Improbable Theatre. The only problem with Lifegame is that this nifty idea sounds better on paper than it works on stage.

It's the nature of the beast, of course, that a show based on improv is going to be different all the time. In Lifegame, the cast is somewhat limited by the chosen subject. If the person whose life is being exposed shares moments that are exciting, funny, weird, or dramatic, the troupe has more to work with, whereas a dull life might naturally lead to a dull show if the improvisers aren't particularly inspired. And an inarticulate or non-giving guest could really gum up the works. The Improbable Theatre folks try to mitigate those kinds of disasters by choosing their subjects in advance, rather than directly out of that night's audience, and they spend an hour with the selected person before the curtain rises. The show's tag line states that "there is a story in everyone," which is true. Unfortunately, not every story is worth hearing.

On the night we saw Lifegame, the guest was a voluble man who was often funnier than the company; but his life lacked conflict, which is the essence of theater. There were some amusing moments, like a childhood memory of he and a friend throwing knives at each other's bare feet, and the troupe offered a musicalized recreation of the fellow's date with another guy who wanted to introduce him to opera. But there was a lot of down time, as well, because the interview process kept hitting dead ends. The biggest problem was the interviewer herself, who did not appear to know how to elicit the man's juiciest stories; as a consequence, the things she often ended up asking the troupe to recreate held little promise for either comedy or drama. She shied away from conflict, rather than embracing it. On the positive side, neither the interviewer nor the troupe did anything that might embarrass their guest. They were respectful at all times--knowing, we presume, that the paying customers would not stand for one of their own being demeaned.

The concept of Lifegame, credited to Keith Johnstone, is inherently appealing. We like to think that our lives are interesting, even entertaining. Certainly, the members of the improv troupe--led by the artistic directors and designers of The Improbable Theatre, Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson, and Julian Crouch--are clever and nimble at finding ways to act out your past, your fantasies, and possibly your future. They pulled off a rather sweet finale at the show we attended when they imagined the death of that night's hero and brought him face-to-face with God, using bits and pieces of information they had conjured from earlier skits.

The Lifegame ensemble can likely be counted upon to provide some truly amazing evenings of entertainment when everything falls properly in to place. Too often, though, the show seems like an elaborate party game played by an exceptionally talented group of friends.


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