Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-five years since my last confession, but that one didn’t count because they hadn’t given me my Miranda warning. Since that time I…
Oh, wouldn’t you like to know, you potential blackmailer, you money-grubbing, improv-loving, bottom-feeding…you journalist, you? Wouldn’t you like to have the information which could stop my climb to power as a…well, as a guy who writes stuff for a website? Well, I’m not going to give it to you.
Or maybe I am. The mouth-watering premise behind I Confess is that you will confess a dark secret anonymously on a slip of paper which will then make it into the hands of Washington Improv Theater, who will make it into a musical sketch. What could be more liberating than confessing the thing so terrible you were afraid to tell anyone about it – and then have it turned into a funny musical? Even more deliciously, they would turn it into two musicals – one where the penitent confesses, and one where he hides his shame.
Well, the sweaty-palmed anticipation may be the best thing about I Confess. In the show I saw, the troupe took one confession – “I took other people’s ice cream from the community freezer and ate it” – and ran with it for the entire seventy-five minute production (there was a brief effort to fold in another confession, involving a compulsion to defecate after drinking coffee, but it died after a couple of lines). I imagine the penitent was remembering a time that he filched ice cream from the freezer in his office or dorm, but the WIT folks had dramatically different spins on it. In one sketch, the penitent (Artistic Director Mark Chalfant) was the member of a bizarre cult-like community where the concept of individuality was forbidden, and no one was permitted to eat ice cream alone. In the second, the penitent (Justin Purvis) was a man originally assigned to do “volunteer” work in a homeless shelter as a high school graduation requirement; he enjoyed stealing the homeless shelter’s ice cream so much that he stayed for eight years and won numerous volunteer of the year awards. (I am giving away nothing; this is improv, and you will see an entirely different sketch.)
The second premise sounds funnier, but the first actually worked better, in part because of the cult’s ridiculous collectivist ethos. “Only one person is driving that bus!” screeches a cult member (Catherine Deadman) suddenly loosed upon the real world. “Where are we?” moans the cult’s leader (Matt Berman), as he tries to find some missing members. “Where have we gone?”
Improv is tough, and although these are some of Washington’s best improvisational actors (Sarah Donnelly, Karen Lange, Curtis Raye and Greer Smith, in addition to the foregoing) they hit some difficult patches. The homeless-shelter sketch was a little tedious after its initial wittiness; the penitent’s endless efforts to control the investigation into the ice-cream theft by setting up cameras and posing (implausibly) as a homeless person himself seemed like an endless setup in search of a punch line.
Periodically one of the actors would belt out a song about the action so far to Director Travis Ploeger’s generic music, prompting me to recall Samuel Johnson’s remark about the dancing bear – the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all. As the actors furiously – and sometimes brilliantly – built on themes which fellow cast members developed, the two intertwined (but unrelated) sketches moved further and further away from the original confession.
So the production I saw abandoned the original theme, and broke into an improvised musical. Your results may vary, and at the very least you will see some decent improv. Although all the actors are good, Berman is exceptional – so convincingly into whatever character he’s playing that he pulls the course of the story with him.
WIT gives you 15 chances to see I Confess: the show runs from July 12 – 28, 2012 at Source, 1835 14th St NW, DC>
Details and tickets