Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Historic comedy — Sidecar tackles Alaska history with humorous bent
By Jenny Neyman
“State nickname: The Last Frontier. Not to be confused with the final frontier, which is definitely space.
“State bird: The Willow Ptarmigan. The ‘P’ is silent. The ‘X’ and the ‘Q’ are both silent and invisible.
“State fish: King salmon. When king crab found out, he waged an epic war on king salmon’s kingdom, which ended abruptly when someone reminded king crab that crab is not a fish.
“State gem: Jade. Runner-up: Jewel.
“State fossil: Mammoth. Runner-up: Ted Stevens.
“State mammal: Moose. Bears campaigned heavily for the position but lost after eating their speechwriters.”
Comedy commemorating Alaska’s 50th anniversary of statehood, including these Alaska factoids listed above: “Eight Stars of Comedy Gold.”
Triumvirate Theatre of the central Kenai Peninsula, the performing arm of the Alaska Children’s Institute of the Performing Arts, applied for a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum last year to launch an ambitious project — create a show that would tackle 3,000 years of state history in a format that’s both factual and funny.
“This type of project is needed because the commencement of something as important as Alaska statehood should be a memorable event, and live theater, when done with the kind of professionalism as this show, will accomplish that,” said Joe Rizzo, president of Triumvirate Theatre.
Triumvirate enlisted the help of Sidecar, an improvisational acting troupe from New York City, comprised of Justin Tyler, Matt Fisher and Alden Ford, to write and perform the show. The project was a good fit for Sidecar, Ford said, because the group tries to create an original comedy sketch show a year, and “8 Stars” was a chance to expand their horizons without having to take too big a leap from the work they usually do.
Sidecar’s writing style typically involves coming up with a silly premise for a sketch and filling in random, obscure or detailed information.
“It works for us to come up with scenarios where we just fill in the jokes with specifics for Alaska history — with gold rush stuff and oil boom specifics. But it’s sort of the opposite direction we have to go in — start with specifics and then find a funny premise and plug those specifics in and it still makes sense. So it’s close to what we already do, but just far enough that we had to reverse engines on a bunch of processes to do it right. But I think it turned out really well,” Ford said.
To cover the Alaska purchase, Sidecar places William Seward in a car dealership, with a salesmen trying to talk him into the “roomy” and “gently used” Alaska model. Seward is skeptical at first.
“It’s a little remote,” he says.
“Seward: And it’s really cold, right?
“Salesman: Only for 11 months out of the year.
“Seward: Well, it sure is beautiful. Does it have gas in it already?
“Salesman: Oh, yeah. Lots. Oil’s good for a while too.”
For a show celebrating statehood, the material starts way, way before that event and ends beyond it. The first sketch is of weary nomads making their way across the land bridge from Russia to Alaska in the Pleistocene Era — “Are we there yet? But we been travelin’ for 4,000 years awready!”
Before that, Sidecar gets an admission out of the way — yes, the group is from New York, yet they’re doing a show about Alaska history. Tyler and Fisher take an uninformed stab at state knowledge:
Tyler: “During World War II, the land that would become Alaska was won from the Germans in a poker game on the deck of the Lusitania!”
Fisher: “And in 1996 a giant pipeline of oil was discovered built in ancient days, perhaps by sasquatches, no one truly knows!”
Ford, who’s from Alaska, comes onstage to correct them and get the show on track. The group is actually not a stranger to the state, having done improv performances and workshops on the peninsula before, and Ford having grown up in Nikiski. They researched state history in writing the show and got input from script contributors Rizzo and Carla Jenness, with Triumvirate, and Mario Bird, of Anchorage. But having an Outside perspective proved useful in writing the script, Ford said.
“When the other two guys write something that’s funny and interesting to them, it gives fresh perspective on things that are quirky and funny about Alaska that I never thought of. Then I can add an inside eye of things that Alaskans think are funny that wouldn’t occur to a lot of New York comedy writers,” Ford said.
The show kicks off Friday and Saturday with 7 p.m. performances at Triumvirate in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Shows are also planned for 7 p.m. April 3, 4, 10 and 11 at Triumvirate, a dinner theater performance at 7 p.m. April 9 at the Funky Monkey in Kenai, an Anchorage performance at Cyrano’s at 7 p.m. April 2, a Seward show at Seward Middle School at 7 p.m. March 30, and a Homer show at the Mariner Theatre in Homer High School at 7 p.m. April 1. Tickets for community shows are $7 for adults and $3 for children. In between the 90-minute community shows, Sidecar will do school visits around the peninsula, performing half-hour versions of the show.
“We really like performing a lot. We try to write in a way that makes it easy and fun to prepare. We try to keep things light by keeping characters pretty simple and fun. When we rehearse it’s less about trying to make sure we have really intricate characters and fabulous blocking (stage movements). It’s more just focusing on the timing and our relationships and what’s funny about the sketch,” Ford said. “It’s hard to know from here what will be funny. We’ll have to get up there and see what’s working and not. We’re looking forward to evolving the show and tweaking it and concentrating on the things we like about it and the audience likes about it.”
For more information on “Eight Stars of Comedy Gold,” visit Triumvirate’s Web site, www.triumviratetheatre.org. For more information on Sidecar, visit www.sidecarcomedy.com.