Elementary at Best: “Bistany’s Mysteries”

Presented by Improv Boston
Director: Matt Bistany

January 8 – 22, 2016
40 Prospect Street
Cambridge, MA
ImprovBoston on Facebook

Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Cambridge, MA) ImprovBoston does an admirable job of keeping the art of live improvisation well… alive.  I love the constantly rotating repertory onstage at IB, and I’ve almost never been disappointed with the offerings I’ve seen at this venue.  Perhaps best of all: IB makes certain that all levels of improvisers get a chance at the spotlight as they produce student showcases frequently mixed in with their professional troupes.  Nice work, IB.  Nice work.

That being said, Bistany’s Mysteries wasn’t the strongest offering that IB had to give to the Boston theatre scene.  The premise of the show was that its audience was present to see mystery writer Matthew Bistany put together his latest and greatest murder mystery novel.  Each of the three evenings were themed by setting; the night I was there happened to be “outer space/the future”.  A long-form improv piece was generated with occasional input from Matthew, the writer, as to how something might get re-written.  These re-writes were sometimes based on suggestions from the audience (invited by Matthew), and other times based on things Matthew dreamed up.

The piece suffered from a few basic rookie mistakes which led me to believe that this batch of improvisers was either: A) new to the game, or B) not the real “A” team at IB.  There were frequent instances of the performers not “taking the offer”.  If you know the elementary rules of improv, you might also know the “yes” rule: always say “yes” to your partner since that will make what happens be more creative, more exciting, and will promote further invention.  A slight variation on this is “taking the offer”; when your partner gives you something by way of a suggestion, take it and run rather than shutting it down.  The word “no” only creates dead ends in improv.  This is doubly true when the audience has been solicited for suggestions; if you are presented with an offer (be it the location of a scene, your own profession, or some prop you have to work with), you need to take it and use it as fuel for your creativity.  Sadly, several of the Bistany’s Mysteries actors seemed incapable of taking the offer or, somehow, frequently forgot that this was important.  Because of this failing, a lot of the scenes fell flat when they could have soared.

The team of performers was vast.  This was a large crew to support the sort of improvising they were hoping to do.  I think the cast size was a detriment to the performance overall.  It meant that there were so many convoluted relationships and characters presented that nobody got the “screen time” they needed to make their story ring true.  The large cast distracted from the point of the exercise and, rather than supporting each other, instead became a burden to the tale.

Perhaps most problematically, Matthew (the evening’s host) didn’t seem to find a “groove” in terms of timing.  A key role of the improv host is to know when to cut something off, when to move on to the next thing, and how to best support the pit with suggestions. Certain sections of this show floundered because they went on for too long, while others were cut off prematurely just as they began to get truly amusing.  Matthew had a hard time finding the performers’ moments of struggle and supporting them with new suggestions which made the actors’ jobs ten times harder. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was new to hosting and just hadn’t quite found the rhythm of it yet.  Alternately, everyone has bad nights and long-form improv is perhaps the least forgiving venue for anything being “off” in a performance.

As always, the music stole the show.  One of the best components of an IB show is the guy behind the keyboard: a live musical artist who improvises piano pieces to go along with the performers’ antics.  Well done, piano man.  Well done.

Overall, I found this show mildly entertaining.  I probably wouldn’t have made the trek out past my bedtime (10:00 PM start-time is late for us early risers) in the frigid cold if I had known that it was going to be as middling as it was. That said, a couple of pre-show drinks from IB’s well-stocked bar might have made up the difference between “okay” and “hilarious”.

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