By Beatrice Loayza
“So, what are we seeing again?” my friend asks me at dinner prior to the show.
Pause. I scrape the corners of my mind for a suitable answer, but the reality is–
“I have no clue.”
What ends up happening in the next two hours? A chance meeting of two blerds (black + nerds) at a nude beach. A trio of kids invading an intake center demanding playtime. Bob Ross from Corn University taking your job. Murder. Certainly nothing in the playbill could’ve told me that.
But rest assured, spoilers are impossible in Damned If You Do, Woolly Mammoth Theater Company’s first production of the 2018-2019 season. The show is performed by four members of the improv comedy group, the Upright Citizens Brigade, whose list of notable alumni include Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Donald Glover, and Kate McKinnon– just to name a few. As much as I might try to give you a sense of what to expect, expectations are kind of contrary to the nature of this particular beast.
The cast is comprised of “four beautiful women,” UCB Artistic Director Shannon O’Neill, Alex Dickson, Monique Moses, and Molly Thomas (though I sense future performances will make use of a fifth male cast member on the bill, Connor Ratliff). The show opens with our four performers, standing shoulder to shoulder under the glow of eerie green lights. In unison, they announce they know our future, what it could look like, and how it might be different due to one seemingly insignificant decision.
After this bit of paranormal irony, the performers pick a worthy candidate from the shortlist of three audience volunteers to be interviewed onstage, a young woman with two full-time jobs working for victims of domestic violence and the homeless, and a penchant for smoking weed and playing video games with her mom. Ringleader O’Neill conducts the interview with a calm and clever demeanor, somehow both prodding and respectful, though unfortunately there was little to poke fun of, as our volunteer turns out to be somewhat of an “angel.”
Immediately after the interview, it’s showtime, and our whip-smart performers launch into a series of possible “future scenarios” for our volunteer culled from details of her interview. The first possible future goes from an empty wedding party in Reading, Pennsylvania to getting fired by an inane boss who can’t tell fake resumes from real ones. The stage goes dark, and our “four beautiful women” re-emerge in that alien green light to offer an alternative future. Round two ends climactically in what was personally my favorite bit– demonic possession and a dead co-worker. It’s like choose your own adventure without anyone knowing what will happen until it does. In the end, our volunteer got to choose which future she’d prefer. It was the more reasonable one.
After the intermission, the performers returned for another short improv set based off another audience member in the balcony. The result, however, was more like a conglomerate of all the audience participation accrued throughout.
If you’re only looking for an assembly line of clever jokes, then you might come out of Damned If You Do disappointed. What you’re getting is something fundamentally more audacious, and spectacularly more difficult. It requires the lightning-quick wits of our performers, audience enthusiasm, and a bit of luck. Think spontaneous characters. Nimble, ridiculous banter. Absurd situations. All in a package that’ll only ever happen once in a lifetime.
Naturally, some moments had a greater effect on me than others, but improv is more than how funny the parts of the whole come across. Damned If You Do is about how no matter what choices you make, the future will throw crazy – usually unfortunate – things your way, the premise of which is more generic, and susceptible to deflation than UCB’s last Woolly stint in 2016, We Know How You Die! (in which, you guessed it, the performers pull the events leading up to your death out of thin air). Nevertheless, Damned is the product of what only spectacular improv and spectacular improv performers can do – create an entire universe of inside jokes for an audience of strangers.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.