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The full Morris
Unexpected Company hilariously makes it up as they go along
BY BILL RODRIGUEZ
Heavy breathing

Unexpected is the right word. There in the humble little Warwick Museum of Art, surrounded by a display of childrenís paintings, is a talented young troupe that calls itself the Unexpected Company and performs Sunday night improv comedy shows that, judging by a recent evening, are quite a hoot.

The action zipped all over the map, from a soap factory to Neverland, as though a school bus for a bunch of attention-deficit kids had been hijacked by Merry Pranksters with their own idea of what constitutes a good trip.

That is to say, the brief, skit-like improv you might be used to, where audience members constantly interrupt and change the performersí direction, has been replaced by two 45-minute routines. The actors and the audiences are in for the long haul. Fortunately, what could be slow rides ended up being a couple of delightful romps.

The Unexpected Company employs a long form of improv that founder Tim Hillman has devised. Itís called the Morris, which is not to be confused with English Morris Dancing, which is also pretty funny but unintentionally so. (It could, however, be easily confused with the Harold, the original long form invented by late improvisation guru Del Close, of Chicagoís The Second City. See above for more.)

On a slightly raised platform are a couple of lime-green folding chairs and a collapsible serving table. Out steps Hillman, a bearded guy considerably older than the twentysomethings you have seen scampering about behind the scenes. He makes his sales pitch for the Morris, probably to the dismay of former MTV addicts who paid their five bucks and were expecting something along the finger-snapping lines of Sesame Street with raunchy wisecracks. Nope, he explains. The audience will make suggestions for a theme and the troupe will run with it for the duration. God help us all, he doesnít say, if they pick something boring.

So out trots the first team. Four guys and one young woman, of various sizes and shapes. The audience is asked to suggest something they wish theyíd invented. A simple request, but hereís where the pros and the amateurs are sorted out ó a guy in the audience suggests sex and has to be informed that this was not an invention but a discovery.

Shrugging off sex and the bobblehead doll and settling on the invention of the toothbrush, the troupe is off and running. Matt Archambault starts off as a lifeguard with bad breath. (Not much more is done with the toothbrush motif, but the audience continues to chuckle anyway.) Zack Geoffroy, lying on the floor and applying sunblock, takes offense at him laughing and is informed that he is at an indoor swimming pool.

And so it goes, as the players gleefully mess with one anotherís minds, pulling fast ones like that or switching scenes completely or registering a surprise that lurches the storyline in an entirely new direction. For example, a baby that two garbagemen in the next scene find in a trash can grows up to own a soap factory, since his origins gave him an obsession with cleanliness.

Some of their most inventive turns were not for the squeamish. For example, when Victoria Gillette suggests to her boyfriend that they go clubbing, Eric Harrington takes her to do in some baby seals. "Thatís horrible!" she shrieks. "No itís not," he replies. "There are too many of them."

You get the idea. Theme and variation, heavy on the variation, extra points for cleverness. Toward the end of the first teamís shenanigans, the problem of evil in the world is eliminated when God gives Satan a nice, long hug. But the real payoff is when Andrew Mendillo is later told heís going to Hell and he remembers to retort, "Well, is that such a bad thing any more?"

And that was just the first half of the show. In the second, quick thinking continued. After stopping an underage video store customer from renting some porn, Brian Perry is asked if heíd get in the way of a customer who liked to watch cars crash. Of course not, he replies without missing a beat, he could get killed that way. Later, Jordan Eastwood was a very funny pixie-dust-pushing Tinkerbell, and Frank Fusaro was uproarious with his riff on obsession with Steven Spielbergís Hook ó coming back to it time and again with fresh takes, as obsessives do.

Not everything was unimprovable, of course. There was only one woman in the cast of 10. Both routines resorted to therapy sessions, although they were handled differently. Needless to say, not every bit achieved its knee-slapping aspiration, not every actor was as funny as the next or managed to never drop the metaphorical ball tossed to him.

But the pace tended to stay brisk, what with the Morris allowing an actor to step out and change the scene at will. Unexpected Company is a breath of fresh air, so letís hope they keep up their heavy breathing for a long time to come.

Ė B.R.

Tim Hillman, the founder of Unexpected Company, feels about his new troupeís style of improv the way the born-again feel about their religion.

He doesnít have a pamphlet to thrust at you, but they do have a Web site. (Donít forget the hyphen in unexpected-company.com, or youíll end up in Iowa.)

"After thirtysomething years of doing theater, this has become my reason for doing it," he says.

Hillman, 46, is twice as old as any of the 14 actors who take turns performing Sunday nights at the Warwick Museum of Art. Sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and an impresarioís nerve, he comes across like a slimmed-down Orson Welles doing Falstaff. But now, having worked up a sweat being put on the spot again and again that evening, heíd probably rather be hoisting post-performance flagons of ale with his band of young extroverts.

"Unexpected started in my mind and in reality in Los Angeles going back about 17 years, when Iíd become frustrated with the short-scene sketch style improv that abounded in Los Angeles," he explains. Hillman was a member of a company called the LA Connection for more than a year, and then started up a short-lived improv company in a space the Church of Scientology let them use. No less than Lisa Kudrow and Conan OíBrien were in that troupe ó the original Unexpected Company. Other improv and acting students he has taught include Matthew Perry and Sara Gilbert.

After Hillman gets through with them, young actors tend to be interested in the long forms of improvisational comedy more than the finger-popping short stuff, meat-and-potatoes more than improv Chinese takeout. "It was a seamless form of improvisation that didnít involve going to the audience all the time and saying, ĎFeed me information,í " he says.

Hillman fled the mad LA scene with his actress wife Erin Russell when they started raising children. He had a Ph.D. in education from LaSalle University, so he went off to teach theater at Phillips-Andover in Massachusetts and in Tennessee, where he set up an improv company. Two years ago he and his family settled in Rhode Island, where he was raised. Hillmanís day job is as chairman of the department of computer science at Prout School in Wakefield.

His latest troupe is six months old and, to hear him tell it, he has designs on 60 years.

The enthusiasm is all thanks to Harold. Or should I say Morris? There are nearly as many variations on the Harold as there are comedy troupes. The original Chicago version involves linking scenes, united by a theme, with improv group games for variety.

This latest incarnation of Unexpected Company started out doing the Harold in its two-month rehearsal period, getting ready to perform publicly in March. Stuck in a Harold that wasnít going anywhere, upon Hillmanís suggestion company member Brian Perry broke into an impromptu interior monologue that closed one scene and provided fertile ground for the next scene to grow.

"I saw what was happening and said, ĎIím not going to stop this,í " Hillman recalls. "The worst that I could have done was to stop it from happening, because it went flying."

What they soon named the Morris was born. Morris is a little freerer than Harold, who likes the security of a strict form.

"Itís great," says Perry, the spike-haired guy sitting next to Hillman. "In the short form, all you can really get out of it is easy jokes. In this you can do something that makes sense and has a story. Itís so much fun."

On the other side of Hillman, recent URI grad Tom Reedy talks about how it is to lose yourself in a long improv thatís cruising along on all cylinders. "I used to be an athlete in high-school ó you knew when you were in the zone," he says. "When youíre up on stage and everything is clicking, everything youíre saying is getting a reaction and the person youíre looking at is reacting right back with you ó itís just awesome, really, when that happens."

"You donít feel like itís an effort anymore," Brian adds.

"Itís like really good sex," Hillman says. "I guess thatís why everybody smokes."

Brian turns to him. "And thatís why I took that nap in the middle of the set."

Apparently, they havenít punched out yet.

But thatís to be expected if you listen to Hillman, who makes a case that an actor doing improv isnít all that different from what youíre going to do after you put down this paper.

"Hereís how I explain it to actors. If you pick up the phone to call a girl, you have planned out what youíre going to say," he begins. "The instant she picks up the phone, everything you had planned goes right out the freaking window . . . and immediately, youíre improvising.

"Every single person on the face of this planet does this all day long," Hillman points out.

If he and his tireless company have their way, an increasing number of people in Rhode Island, at least, will enjoy watching it happen in the evenings, too.


Issue Date: July 11 - 17, 2003
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