True experimental theater breaks down the divide of expectations between performer and audience. Extroverts usually love this. Introverts, not so much. No surprise then that the long-form improvisation Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical Capital Balloon Ride positively delighted me. It’s like a sociological seminar on human nature, challenging you (ever so subtly) to actually be interested in the people around you.
Interested in your fellow audience members instead of the actors? Outrageous! The evening I saw the performance, one woman seemed almost hostile and offended by the nontraditional premise (though she may have warmed to it by the end). As your ears pick up on the whispering of Cecily (Kelly A. Jennings) and Gwendolyn (Karen Getz), circling round the perimeters of the theater, loopily costumed in Victorian crinolines, you begin to realize – they are talking about you. Get ready. Actual interaction can’t be far behind.
Long-form improv can be an incredible art. Jennings and Getz have got the requirements in abundance – with fearless intelligence and lightning quick reactions they mold the action into an intriguing hour, making random connections between people seem like cohesive observations about life. Well, they are. Each performance will be different (though I suspect there will always be at least one person unwilling to engage), depending on the mix of audience members, their backgrounds, and their willingness to share. Though the construct – two Victorian time travelers discovering 21st century culture – remains constant, no two experiences will be the same. Expect to be peppered with questions about your life and beliefs, take notes, perform even – give yourself over to it, and at the end you’ll find your mind open to those philosophical queries that both enchant and provoke. Why are we here? Are we connected? What’s life all about?
The minor flaw in this improv diamond is the location, a traditional theater inside the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. I would’ve loved to have seen this – I mean, participated in this – in a less restrictive environment, perhaps in the round in a more intimate space, or even mingling around the Gypsy Bar itself. But Jennings and Getz’s theatrical experiment transcends the confines to continue in your mind after the show itself (it really is a balloon ride!). I left filled with the desire to continue the conversation, to talk til sunrise with friends and strangers, high on connections and the knowledge that other people can be just as fascinating as any performance.
We’re all performing in a long-form improv, after all.