The Extemporium by Paper Street Theatre October 22-25 2014. A review.

The Extemporium by Paper Street Theatre, October 22-25 2014. A review.

Improvisation so expertly executed as to appear scripted. In fact, the actors of Paper Street Theatre have great difficulty at times in dissuading audience members from the notion that it is.

What is the secret to this seemingly effortless endeavour?  Preparation—months and months of studying the works of the author (or genre)—in this case, Franz Kafka—and playing with one another.

The Extemporium October 2014Paper Street founder Dave Morris, at the talk back after the first show of The Extemporium—A Kafka-esque Improv Experience, recounted a word game, wherein one actor in the ensemble wrote a sentence imitating Kafka’s signature style and passed it to another, and so on until the story was completed—with bizarre and absurd results.

Now in their 4th season, the company has honed their design aesthetic (costumes, lights, music, set) becoming increasingly attentive to the smallest of details. Costumes for this production are monochromatic in rather dreary tones of beige, taupe, grey, brown and black. Flourishes can be noticed in the pleat of a skirt, length of a jacket, softness of a sweater, or unique knot style of each man’s tie (courtesy Shahin Sanjari).

Composer, musical improviser and computer wizard Dan Godlovitch (the Krells, Ookpikk) manipulates the keyboards and mixes tracks he’s prepared for the show, as well as individual sounds, to re-create an eastern European sensibility. Low notes of the tuba and keening violins were particularly noticeable for their haunting effect.

Lighting artist Emma Dickerson employs amber and bright white to deliberately set the audience on edge.  “People have an uncomfortable reaction to amber in particular—it should appear warm but has the opposite effect.  And the bright white, which I stole from German expressionism, washes people out”, she explained after the show. Hanging lamps and two antique chairs add richness to the set design.

Joining the cast for the first time were improvisers Shahin Sanjari and Andrew Brimmell, members of improv troupe Lightning Theatre (Mask Over Matter-Victoria Fringe).  Their addition to the ensemble was seamless.

Since Kafka himself wrote short stories, The Extemporium consists of three short and disturbing stories, improvised on the spot with suggestions from the audience. On opening night, these related to a bureaucratic activity with many steps (applying to volunteer at the hospital), a mundane daily activity (reading the newspaper) and a magical event (a unicorn in the backyard).

Narration is used extensively to set the stage and direct the actors. In the longest scene Applying to Renew a Hospital Volunteer Licence, narrated by Dave Morris, the hapless hero, Es (Byron Kjeldsen) endured run-around after run-around after he decided that the best course of action was to simply forge the licence. Missie Peters appeared as his wizened landlady Miss Mary. The forgers (Scott Thompson, Nicole Olszewski, Monica Ogden) waited in the alley—biding time in the background, all the while puffing impatiently or strumming fingers nervously. These vignettes added a note of menace. A mysterious invalid (Shahin Sanjari) materialized. People die and vanish. Es was ultimately unsuccessful.

Shahin Sanjari narrated Reading The Newspaper with creepy perfection. Jane (Christina Patterson) flips pages on story after story—each more improbable than the last.

And, in the final episode, Nicole Olszewski narrated the story of a young man (Andrew Brimmell) who, as he prepares for work, encounters a unicorn (Chris Gabel) in his backyard, with unexpected and comedic results.

The magic of Paper Street Theatre is in the anticipation—in knowing that somehow, from the depths of their imaginations, buoyed by a formidable esprit de corps, the actors will pull moments and stories to hold the audience’s attention through scene after improbable scene.

The closest parallel that I can imagine is to trained chefs provided with a black box of ingredients, asked to provide a sumptuous feast.

Relax; knowing you will dine very well indeed at any Paper Street Theatre show.

The Extemporium: A Kafka-esque Improv Experience
October 22-25 | Intrepid Theatre, 1609 Blanshard
Tickets: $15. Season’s tickets available through Ticket Rocket.

Enter a strange world so utterly mundane that it becomes absurd. This Halloween Paper Street Theatre brings you this disturbing set of improvised tales inspired by the works of author Franz Kafka.

On Saturday October 25th join Paper Street Theatre founder Dave Morris for a workshop on improvising in a Kafka-esque style. Workshop $25 with a discount of $5 if you show your ticket stub.

Disclaimer: I was graciously provided with complimentary tickets to The Extemporium.

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