Scouts and Streak Amuse Parents, Demonstrate Wit

Lucy Weltner

The annual Parents Weekend improv showcase opened to an audience of curious families and excited students, sprawled around the Cat in the Cream’s few tables and over most of its floor. Guitarist Andrew Gombas, OC ’12, introduced the show with charming, witty stage banter and a few cutesy but skillfully played original songs. The songs — dealing with such issues as falling in love with a jellyfish and becoming romantically snowbound in a cabin — ranged from endearingly silly to annoyingly trite. Fortunately, Gombas mitigated any potential for obnoxiousness by radiating genuine friendliness, speaking with candor about his love for a high school girlfriend, which “hit him in the face like a dead fish,” and enthusiastically encouraging the audience to sing along. Gombas’s act similarly benefited from his obvious musical talent, exhibited by impressively well-composed music and accomplished guitar playing.

After Gombas warmed up the crowd, long-form improv group the Sunshine Scouts took the stage amid a flurry of excited cheering. The Sunshine Scouts immediately took advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm, asking for a one-word prompt from the audience (the group decided on “watermelon”). Extrapolating from three initial watermelon-related scenarios, the Scouts developed storylines featuring a bickering clique of Las Vegas showgirls, an overprotective squash farmer, two freakishly large kindergartners and a reality TV star turned aspiring ballet dancer. The Scouts impressed with virtuosic originality, spontaneously initiating scenarios stranger and more creative than most indie movie premises.

The Scouts’ storylines tended to drift far from the original narrative, impulsively shifting between themes and settings. One plot began with a town hall debate over the ownership of a watermelon patch and ended with a lonely squash player losing his glasses on the court; another transitioned from creating a reality TV show to exploring a modern dance routine. The Scouts’ manic plot movement occasionally resulted in the sudden abandonment of promising jokes; a storyline featuring a hilariously uptight PTA member hosting a “watermelon festival” was dropped mid-scene after the show’s first 15 minutes.

Aside from a few similarly frustrating lost opportunities, the troupe’s constant narrative movement renewed the performance’s artistic ingenuity. By taking the narrative in new creative directions, the Scouts avoided a much greater evil — namely, the beating of any dead horses. For every inspired scenario discarded, the Sunshine Scouts escaped three or four recurring jokes that would have stagnated the narrative. In one particularly ingenious transition, two French dancers enlivened a circular discussion of one character’s frustratingly boring, “average Joe” life by “dancing the conversation.” Later in the scene, one character’s observation that modern dancers always appear to be exaggeratedly preparing sandwiches prevented the dance routine from growing stale.

Displaying true improvisational skill, the Scouts largely succeeded in shifting themes naturally, guiding the audience toward a novel idea instead of jolting between disparate subjects. The performance benefited from the troupe’s admirable willingness to enter spontaneously and enthuse a stagnating scene; at times, the entire group provided narration and sound effects to revitalize a staling storyline. The show’s overall emotional effect could be compared to driving on a highway connecting mile-long regions of disparate foreign countries: The incentive to watch the interesting scenery unfold outweighed the question of how Belize can border Bosnia. Parents and students alike greeted the Sunshine Scouts with approving laughter.

Entering seconds after the Scouts’ final bow, Primitive Streak rallied the audience with witty banter — addressing such subjects as impressing parental figures and consuming guinea pigs — before delving into a second set of loosely related improvisational skits. Primitive Streak’s scenarios displayed refreshingly neat narrative arcs, ingeniously concluding many story lines by circling back to the original theme. The group’s effortless cohesion reflected the skits’ simpler, more easily resolved comedic set-ups. While Streak displayed talent for tight storytelling and astute one-liners, the group lacked the Scouts’ creative risk taking, tending to fall back on more typical comedic scenarios and to incorporate fewer unexpected plot elements. Primitive Streak’s most self-contained storyline, featuring an overbearingly neat, controlling roommate, echoed familiar sitcom tropes; the scenario unfolded with neat wittiness, but displayed little of the Scouts’ off-the-wall inventiveness.

Streak’s best moments dispensed with stereotypically humorous domestic scenes — the organizationally obsessed roommate, the wishy-washy fiancé constantly rescheduling the wedding — in favor of surreally original scenarios. I laughed hardest at a stand-off between Satan and a dog sent to Hell: “Arf… you know what that means, Satan? Fuck off!” declared the dog, rallied by a collective of damned souls.

The two troupes’ back-to-back performance displayed a refreshing spectrum of humor and culture at Oberlin. Despite the fact that both student groups dealt with improvisational comedy, their styles, attitude and wit were very different. The double-header was an apt representation of Oberlin itself: Though we all bring different styles to the table, we have the capacity to be wonderfully in sync, clever, entertaining and creative.