Review: ‘We Know How You Die!’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

I sure laughed a lot at the show I saw the other night at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Gut-busting funny, it was. And I’d highly recommend you catch it…except it was made up on the spot, never to be seen again.

(l-r) Shannon O’Neill, an audience member, Brandon Scott Jones, Connor Ratliff, and Molly Thomas in 'We Know How You Die.' Photo by Teresa Castracane.
L to R: Shannon O’Neill, an audience member, Brandon Scott Jones, Connor Ratliff, and Molly Thomas in ‘We Know How You Die!.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Taking a crazy flyer, four quick-on-their-feet comics from New York created the whole hilarious evening without a script, just their wits. Long-form improv, it’s called. During the first half hour or so they chose someone from the audience who agreed to share details from her life. (Why anyone would do this I have no idea, but when the actors asked for volunteers, hands shot up all over the packed house.) The improvisers interviewed her on stage, keeping us in stitches the whole time and somehow preserving her dignity. Then, bouncing off biographical particulars they had gleaned, they proceeded for the next 45 minutes or so to spin a loopy story that culminated in her demise, which involved being pummeled by falling apples and fatal complications from a paper cut. (Don’t ask.) The audience loved it.

The troupe bears the brand banner of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the influential comedy phenomenon that since 1990 has launched the careers of a roster of comedians. (Two of the recognizable names among UCB’s famous alumni are Amy Poehler and Kate McKinnon.)

The four UCB improv actors now playing in town are Shannon O’Neill, Brandon Scott Jones, Molly Thomas, and Connor Ratliff—every one a name to watch. Each brought a unique set of physical and verbal comedy skills, but what was amazing was watching how they synced. I honestly don’t know how they did it. They all seemed to be tuned in to some frequency that  only they could hear, and it whispered secret prompts to them like “what if the the next setup or story twist was [fill in the blank]?”

After the volunteer’s fictional death scene, there was an intermission,  followed by another improbable improvisation of about 20 minutes. The evening felt complete and cathartic—the way laughing a lot leaves you high on happy-brain chemicals—and I can report that the audience was digging every bit of it.

Molly Thomas, Connor Ratliff, and Brandon Scott Jones. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Molly Thomas, Connor Ratliff, and Brandon Scott Jones. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The United Citizens Brigade improv troupe will do their surprise-filled We Know How You Die! at Woolly Mammoth Theatre only through July 31st. If you go see one of their shows, will you have as good a time as I did? I’d say the odds are darn good. These four folks are fantastic.

Running Time (can vary from show to show): Two hours, with one intermission.

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We Know How You Die! performed by the United Citizens Brigade Theatre plays through July 31, 2016, performing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

The DC improv scene is thriving, somewhat off the radar of regular performing arts coverage. Improv happens to be difficult to review, because whatever a critic sees always vanishes; but word-of-mouth has been building the reputations of a bunch of places where you can take in your funny bone for a kick fix. I applaud Woolly Mammoth for showcasing a bunch of them in its promo of the UCB run, and I’ve appended here the annotated listings  that Woolly generously provides.

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Improv, Locally Sourced!

Want more improv? These local DC organizations can provide you with some tasty locally grown, farm-to-table improv comedy.

The Unified Scene Theater: a brick-and-mortar improv comedy theater-space (finally!) in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC galvanizing DC’s improvisational comedy scene: a home for those seeking shows, classes, and workshops in the collaborative art of improvisational comedy.

In its 18th year, the nonprofit Washington Improv Theater (WIT) has unleashed the creativity of thousands of Washingtonians and our alumni have gone on to write for SNL and The Daily Show. Last year, we performed for over 21,000 audience members and shared our life-changing classes program with over 1,500 enrolled students.

Chinese Menu Comedy: a monthly all-star improv showcase that brings together only the best from DC and beyond.

 

 

The Highwood Theater: Named

one of the top improv venues in the DC area, The Highwood Theatre in Silver Spring hosts Improv Comedy Night shows two Fridays a month at 8:00 pm. Featuring improv troupes from the DC and Baltimore metro areas, Highwood provides a space for established and new troupes alike to share ideas and perform together while entertaining audiences.

Laugh Index Theatre (LIT): offers a training program for improvisers, stand-up/storytellers & sketch writers and performers in addition to regular shows, an annual festival, corporate training, and workshops for anyone at any level.

 

 

The DC Improv: offers classes in improv comedy and monthly shows by the ComedySportz troupe.

 

Dojo Comedy: provides instruction, practice, and performance of improv, sketch, and alt comedy in Washington, D.C. Shows every weekend, classes regularly enrolling.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.