Faced With Pandemic, Zoetic’s Improv Troupe Soldiers On

By John Thomason

As live arts and entertainment return in fits and starts, and our culture continues its tortoise crawl toward normal, one thing has become apparent: Face masks may be vital in impeding the spread of COVID-19, but they equally hamper the spread of comedy.

We’ve all seen play readings in which great actors make the scripts they’re holding disappear. But at the 5 p.m. debut of Zoetic Schmoetic this past Saturday—the Arsht Center’s first live theatre performance in 11 months—those ubiquitous pieces of cloth were simply too disruptive for the finest thespian to transcend. Even with the actors miked, there were garbled words, to be sure. More fundamentally, there’s a connection that is lost when we can’t see an actor’s smile or lack thereof, and the layers of exuberance or irony or seductiveness contained within it.

To counter this inherently distancing handicap, Stuart Meltzer and artistic advisor/actor Elena Maria Garcia conceived Zoetic Schmoetic as a night of improv games, which by their nature favor broadness over subtlety. The more physical the show becomes—the more the actors’ bodies, not their voices, drive the storytelling—the better it gets.

Performing al fresco on the Arsht’s Thomson Plaza for the Arts, on a makeshift stage underneath the Ziff Ballet Opera House marquee, Garcia and her ensemble of Clay Cartland, Jeni Hacker, Fergie L. Philippe, Daryl Patrice and Gabriell Salgado perform an hour-plus of fast-moving, durable improv tropes familiar to fans of Whose Line Is It Anyway? There’s “Freeze,” in which the introduction of a new actor alters a comic narrative in progress; “Interrogation,” in which a pair of law enforcement officers (Hacker and Garcia) prompt a suspect (Cartland) into revealing the bizarre crime he didn’t know he committed; and “Category Schmategory,” in which the actors offer quips on a suggested topic, i.e., “drunken babysitters” or “Miami drivers.”

While some of the show’s topics arise from oral solicitations of the audience, most of them are collected by Meltzer prior to the show, from flash cards handed out to attendees who arrive early enough. He then quickly organizes them and, like Drew Carey, calls the show from his perch off stage left, curating the action by dinging a bell and rattling a noisemaker.

I can go on about the successes from the first Zoetic Schmoetic show—including Hacker deftly ping-ponging between two inspired restaurant scenes in progress, and Cartland, Salgado and Philippe acting the part of “lethargic koalas” for a high school performing-arts troupe. But the nature of improv, unlike traditional theatre, is not repeatable: Every show is by definition bespoke, so readers of this review won’t see these flashes of lightning in a bottle. Nor does it make sense to dwell on the sketches that didn’t gel (in my show, a game called “Symphony” in which a handful of disparate stories barely cohered into an orchestral whole), because these could be the highlight of your show.

There is one thing I can almost guarantee: While all the actors will likely have their moments, Garcia is the quickest wit onstage. Her skill at improvisation, in display in many a Zoetic and City Theatre production over the years, is seemingly without peer in this community. That’s not a dig at anyone else; it simply is a recognition that there are gods among mortals.

There are a couple of topical non-improvised bits in the show, including the introduction, in which the actors model appropriate pandemic behavior—riffing on temperature checks and hand sanitizer—and an uneven batch of song parodies about quarantine life in the vein of the Capitol Steps. Clever as the rhymes can be, listening to the songs’ references to sourdough starters, COVID “truthers” and unidirectional grocery store aisles reminds us just how quickly social-media memes can burn out a subject’s comic potential. A year into the pandemic, these universal reflections of last spring and summer already show their age.

As for the audience, few attendees are likely to feel unsafe attending a Zoetic Schmoetic show. Each ticketholder goes through a liability gauntlet before taking their seat—filling out a wellness form, passing through the standard metal detector, enduring restroom queues with bathrooms limited to a two-person occupancy. Once seated, at a socially distanced table for one to four patrons, guests order food and drinks through a contactless app, and are asked to keep their masks on unless they are eating or drinking.

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t go both ways. Until the world is safe enough for the actors to be free of the N95 impediments, this is theatre with an asterisk. As this experience makes abundantly clear, we’re still a way’s away from bringing Sondheim back.

Zoetic Schmoetic at the Arsht Center returns March 27 and April 24 at 5 and 9 p.m. Tickets cost $15 per person. Call (305) 949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.

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