Like King Tut, Only Alive

The spake Allan Albert, producer-director of Boston's longest running show on the method behind the magic that has made "The Proposition" for seven years the country's most celebrated improvisational troupe. His explanation, though accurate, was tantalizingly superficial enough for me to wonder just what stuff this illusion is made of--what invisible strings are being pulled in a show like this? After having been "propositioned" a now for several years, I resolved that it was high time to go behind the scenes and find out for myself."

My seat for this late January performance was an orange-crate-turned-bench, squeezed against the backside of the stage left wall in a room bearing closer resemblance to a glorified furnace closet than any kind of backstage rest stop. The equal ceiling was gnarled with heating pipes, and about ten feet, back--where the room slightly used out to its end--crouched an old fat furnace, gurgling away through most of the show. Next to it stood a vaudevillian theatre mirror lined with a few dusty but brightly lit bulbs. Old pop cans, boxes, and performance notes decked the floor and walls, and a new bottle of "Syntax" hand lotion sat ready for use on one of the two midget benches opposite me. There was a sense here of routine nervousness waiting anxiously to boil up, like an indy-500 pitstop ready to eject.

Shows start at 8 and 10 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m. the actors (two males and two females) finished their pre-show warmups. Accompanied by Patrick, the pianist, they hopped down the two steps from the wing onto their benches as the audience began scuffing into the theatre. Tapping their feet nervously and lighting each other's cigarettes, they exchanged a few verbal footnotes about the show's format before Patrick went back out to begin an improvised medley, setting an appropriate light, crisp mood.

"Kiddos, let's give ourselves a break this time and not take smoking" or 'overeating' as a vice if it comes up again." Actress Ann Jordon gave a couple of tight little winces as she said it.

Beside me I noticed the show's yellow program, postcard listing about thirty categories such as "phobias," "embarrassing situations," "old wives tales," "famous performers," and "vices and virtues." From these the audience makes their "propositions" which the actors devise into a series of songs and skits spanning the gamut, of entertainment genres from musical comedy, rock, and opera to foreign film festivals and political satire. The success of a show thus depends heavily on the creative feedback of its viewers; ideally, they should come to the show with some ideas in mind so as to avoid offering only the easiest, and most conventional word associations--"abortion," for example has been suggested as "a current social issue" every time I have seen the show.


The pianist had just played a smooth, neatly-groomed transition from a Schubert style sonatina to "Maple Leaf Rag," and a light bulb above my head flickered, and dimmed to about half. This was his signal in start the show. A cheap alarm clock was quickly adjusted and wound to keep taos off the length of the performance, and actress Lina Harvey dashed on some eyeliner. Jack Blessing mumbled about needing to hop to the John and everyone spread "Syntax" and kisses around for good luck. In a few seconds they all darted off onto the stage to begin the show's familiar opening number: a series of hilarious pantomines of various ballgames to illustrate to the spectator that "each proposition is your ball, you toss it to us and we develop a strategy for it here on stage." (Besides the closing musical number, this is the only "set" piece in the show.)

Most of the frantic fun of the evening came from watching the backstage counterpart to these on stage strategy "huddles," which last about a minute during an interlude of piano improves. I knew vaguely what I was in for from the start: while one or more of the actors spin off their impromptu concatenations of wit through either a song or some kind of personal encounter (in Confucianist, "Sun Yat Moon," might lecture on vices to some Process people in the Square), their colleagues are "in the pit" furiously scribbling down rhymed verse, puns, or plotty narratives for the upcoming scene. The room became a jack-in-the-box of nervous energy ready to explode on stage and once in desperation I was hastily asked to help supply some puns or a story line for autobiographical song--this time it was based on the phrase "Damn the torped os--full speed ahead!" but I woefully admitted that nothing came immediately to mind. Happily, it was contrived in the nick of time that a macho guy and his squirmy girlfriend would exchange rings in a submarine shop and thereupon proceed to satisfy their natural urges.

While the actors scooted out to do the scene during the applause and loud laughter of a particularly receptive audience. I checked over the show a performance schedule taped to the wall. On it were penned abbreviations of various types of skits to be given and in what order. Tonight around twelve were featured, including a story theater, a "Dr. Sisters" TV talk show (using "to be or not to be" as the suggested famous quotation, then converting it to an overweight teenage bemoaning in a "Dear Dr. Sisters" letter: "Should I be tubby, or not tubby?"), a grand opera and a poetry reading among others. New skits are constantly substituted for old ones in different performances, tailing one another with so much professional pace, verbal dexterity, and stylistic nuance that every show is enlightening, unpredictable, and unique. And yet, as Albert says, none of them are truly "spontaneous" in the sense that structure is never left to chance. There is a well-conceived skeleton within nearly every show bit, which any kind of good theatrical or literary comedy naturally demands. Usually, this framework involves such plot structures as protagonist versus antagonist in a jealous conflict over lovers, mixed identities, transferred allegiances, tragic irony, and a variety of double plots. In the musical comedy parody (after Rogers and Hammerstein) of the finale, for example, the first scene introduces the all American boy and girl who proceed in subsequent vignettes to be confronted by lesser characters who try to separate them and to stifle their career plans, but who are finally vanquished by good fortune--a reunion acene brings the lovers back together again for the happy ending. Or during the opera parody, the music might structure itself around a Puccini-type love duet and a Mozartian recitative, accompanying the Romeo and Juliet-type plot formula that stands behind an avalanche of imitative narrative detail.

A neat, tidy kind of "illusion of spontaneity" I thought, as the actors paraded through their ending musical number and raucous final applause vibrated one of the mirror's light bulbs to my right. But what makes. "The Proposition" such a genuinely vital and penetrating show is not merely this special type of illusion. The real vibrancy stems from the actors winsome style, a wit that can animate any dead proposition suggested by the audience into a theater alive with laughter (no matter if "smoking," "abortion," and "overeating" all turned up in this show again--the skits were always creative). As the actors came backstage from their final bows to give out mutual hugs of congratulations and relax briefly before the next show, a total rapport and group assurance seemed to wash over all the anxious tensions and worries of the past two hours, and even those of the show to come. After seven years, the aftermath of a success is a good, familiar feeling.

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