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Center Stage

Whirling, wacky and out of Chicago

3/5/2014

When improv comedy works, it suggests an eruption of ping-pong balls. The players start with something ordinary, and without so much as costumes or props, they wind up rocketing off in all directions. That’s when it works, of course, and the good news about “Whirled News Tonight,” the improv troupe in town for two weeks at Temple Theater, is that more than half the time they indeed begin to whirl.

Improv comedy “Whirled News Tonight” shows at Temple Theater through March 9.

Improv comedy “Whirled News Tonight” shows at Temple Theater through March 9.

The name derives from the gimmick that drives the first act. The stage is otherwise barren except for wooden chairs and a bulletin board covered with newspaper clippings selected by the audience. Even on opening night, a few people had come in with clippings; others cut something out of papers available in the lobby. Then, once the show is underway, the actors take turns selecting items from the boards. They read the piece aloud and… cue the whirling.

So a story about this year’s deer season (kills are down, if you didn’t notice) brings three actors center stage holding their hands up and spread-fingered to the sides of their heads: Three deer are chatting, and the subject of their conversation about helping these feeble humans thin the herd. The bit turned out to be one of the best, and the players were smart enough to mine it a second time. They brought the deer back for a brief skit about Iowa’s casinos, and they knew when to end that piece, as well — the stage cleared as soon as one actor got off a marvelous pun.

That quip was one of several dreamed up by Arnie Niekamp. He’s a “Whirled News” founder, as is Marla Caceres. They and the other three cast members are based in Chicago. Only one bio mentions the Second City troupe specifically, but that’s the godfather for this show, clearly. SC, however, like its offspring “Saturday Night Live,” involves lots of planning and scripting. The show at the Temple depends first to last on quick thinking. The prompts for the second act were questions from the audience. The players whipped personal problems into comic scenarios. (I asked about flying in mid-winter and was startled — indeed delighted — to learn that in February, a jet’s gas tanks were filled with hot chocolate.)

Not every line, naturally, earned a round of yucks. One news item concerned an underground radiation leak and segued to a relatively lame fart joke. Predictable. There were a couple of lapses into dead air: Padraic Connelly, despite more than a decade’s experience in Chicago, had a bad night, but then there was Becca Barish, the newest member and the most physically playful. She scooted, she pounced, she preened, and each move was combined with a vocal trick. One minute she sounded like a dopey Valley Girl, the next a drunken Cockney and, after that, some cackling flibbertigibbet escaped from Hogwarts Academy. Talk about a ping-pong ball. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

Barmuda