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Mysterious notices on Cambridge bulletin boards last winter sought "intelligent and gutsy actors and actresses" for "The Proposition--a topical satirical review." Six months later and 80 degrees hotter, the director's call for those with intelligence and guts is understandable. Those rare qualities in its actors make The Proposition's skits, especially improvised ones, funny enough to make manic the most depressed.
The Proposition features an ever-changing repertoire of 42-plus skits written by the members of the company, from which about 20 are drawn for each performance. Comedy is hard to write and harder to play--anyone who has tried either knows how often jokes end up poking too hard or at a subject too sensitive, only to sour into boredom or embarrassment. And everyone who ever blew a joke realizes the demands comedy makes for exactly the right gesture, the right voice, the right mood and the right timing. But except for a few TW3-type series of shorts aimed at tired topics like HHH as LBJ's puppet or the unappetizing selection of candidates for the fall, which should be edited out of the show, The Proposition is consistently laughworthy.
A series of musical numbers work for humor in several dimensions at once, as they treat cliches of musical tradition, situation comedy, character humor and verbal wit. Judy Kahan parodies a torch song singer of the long-legged husky-voiced school in "Euclid's Elemental." Perched on the piano, she crooned movingly about the hypotenuse of a right triangle and touched the audience deeply as she sang "let the whole be equal to the sum of the pa-a-arts."
Not to scare those seeking light diversion, it must be mentioned that the program also included-cultural uplift. The opera Die Meisterslinger, composed by the Proposition's music director, John Forster, collated musical strains lifted from numerous operas. The work concerns a family tragically victimized by circumstance and a villainous slumlord. The son of the house, Juan Valdes, is a junky and a pimp, and the daughter Aida turns out to really be ... well, it's not fair to spoil the suspense.
Perhaps the most surprisingly wonderful of The Proposition's skits are its improvisations, which are eminently spontaneous, since they are based on situations suggested by the audience. The house special is an improvisation in which the actors switch acting methods in mid-scene on cue from Forster. Sunday night's special showed a husband and wife on a golf course, and even managed to work in another audience suggestion about a dilettante gravedigger.
Director Laurence Senelick, Harvard's no. 2 expert on Restoration drama, must be credited with giving his group a sound grounding in Restoration style, because during that segment they managed not only to act funnily within the flitty Restoration method, but also to satirize conventions of Restoration theatre and mores, even to the point of improvising gossip about how Lady Carlisle ate her turnip. And Shakespeare got his due, as one would expect, given a grave on a putting green. Ken Tigar, possibly the quickest witted of this quick crew, finally declaimed "come, my trusty nine iron" as he plunged the weapon through his breast.
The Proposition is something more extraordinary than a group of funnymen feeding sharp lines to one another. Stand-up comedians bring in the laughs and with them, the audiences by asking that they be laughed at, or that the audience laugh at what they say. But The Proposition is a dialogue of laughter in which the audience is the silent partner which laughs with the troupe. You won't love them; you'll fall in love with them.
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