SAN FRANCISCO — One of the best things about musical improvisation is that it often leads the musicians into new and unexplored territories. The same is true for improv comedy, as shown by The Gale, a Los Angeles-based comedy improv group that performed at the Gateway Theater Saturday night as one of the final performances in this year’s SF Sketchfest presented by Audible.
Over the course of the 90-minute performance, the queer improv group tackled such off-beat topics as loud chewing noises, Mike Pence’s homophobia, hitchhiking in Alaska, the youngest person to suffer from fibromyalgia, and the discovery of Harry Potter deep in a subterranean hole… surrounded by dildos.
The fast-paced show was raucous and bawdy as the players jumped between scenes and characters in a classic ‘clap-in’ format. Actors interrupted a scene by clapping, sometimes adding a new character, taking the narrative in wild new directions, or looping back to have another laugh at an earlier bit. The performance was set to music and at various times during the show, the actors broke into improvised song as pianist Jacob Russell-Snyder accompanied the action and provided musical cues.
Made up of LGBTQ performers, The Gale is affiliated with the legendary Groundlings improv group. The group’s creator, Chris Eckert, introduced the Saturday’s production and explained that even as a Bay Area native, he had never before performed in San Francisco. His friends in the audience added some extra enthusiasm to the crowd.
The show began with a series of short scenes that jumped around in terms of setting, character, theme and mood. Brianna Baker stood out early on with her hilarious depiction of a loud and annoying chewer.
Pete Zias and Jimmy Fowlie played traumatized workers in a HomeGoods store ravaged by a storm. The audience soon learned that Zias’ character was on the lam and struggling to provide for his daughter, the world’s youngest fibromyalgia sufferer.
Peter Kim, Navaris Darson and Jason Michael Snow sang a song about erasers before discovering that singing makes you younger, and Darson’s character reverted to a baby. An Alaskan hitchhiker played by Michael Churven complained about all the gay white American men invading the great northern tundra.
Occasionally the actors returned to earlier ideas, like when the head of Zias’ character’s daughter (the one with fibromyalgia) had to be smuggled through an airport security checkpoint in a backpack.
After a short intermission, the group returned to the stage and asked the audience for setting suggestions for the evening’s final one-act play. An audience member yelled out “Hogwarts.” Soon the actors were playing wizardry students under the tutelage of a drunken Hagrid played brilliantly by Brianna Baker.
Harry Potter was missing, and the other students vacillated between attempting to rescue Harry and revealing their own characters’ secrets. Jason Michael Snow’s character, the exchange student from New Zealand, was really an American spy. Jimmy Fowlie’s character turned out to be a 12-year-old elf who lamented the difficulty in finding other age-appropriate queer elves to play with.
Eventually Harry was located deep in a hole, surrounded by dildos. The location was perfect for the final song of the evening.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about these improvised performances was that they weren’t just an endless series of one-liners. The performers also created a story replete with rising action, a climax and a resolution. These story elements are hard enough to invent when an author has ample time and privacy in which to work, but to create collaboratively, under the stage lights, is a true test of a performer’s mettle.