Brendan Rucci

The Hotspurs!: Spur of the Moment at the Ritz Theatre Company

Your correspondent experienced literal chills as he stood outside the Ritz Theatre on Friday night. Inside, South Jersey’s premiere improv troupe, the Hotspurs!, were about to end their three month hiatus from the stage. In retrospect, the brisk winds, frigid temperatures and alcohol withdraw may have had something to do with those shakes, too. At any rate, John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley Brendan Rucci and Andrew Snellen returned to perform a Valentine’s Day comedy extravaganza on February 7th. Love and laugher from the audience resulted.

Mr. Rucci opened the show by singing a lugubrious love song while playing the piano. In the backdrop, hearts and red streamers adorned the Ritz stage. The rest of the group then made an obstreperous entrance as music blared over the loudspeakers.

The members expressed their confusion as to whether they were performing a Valentine’s Day or President’s Day show. Mr. Harris needled Mr. O’Malley by making a reference to President Taft. The latter, of course, is the only American President to also serve as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This abstract allusion to the current President’s reputation for being law abiding in the wake of the impeachment trial was pretty slick. Either that or Mr. O’Malley is the most legal minded of the five. Either way, the addition of topical humor worked.

The members of the 1960s psychedelic rock group Cream said that they rehearsed the beginning and ends of their songs. Everything in the middle they improvised. The Hotspurs! plan out even less of their shows. They script the opening and plan the sequence and participants of the improv games. Everything else that happens on stage is “spur of the moment.”

The show at the Ritz Theatre lasted an hour longer than the other shows they’ve performed. It allowed the group the opportunity to bring more of their classic routines to the stage. They included their standard improv games: “Half Life,” “Pan Left,” “Twists,” “Director,” “Infomercial” as well as others. In all cases they solicited either settings, emotions or character suggestions from the audience. When someone recommended a character they had played before, Mr. Rucci asked for another idea. The original ideas the audience presented gave the traditional routines a fresh edge.

Adding to the originality, the Hotspurs! added some new games to their repertoire. They included: “Best Date / Worst Date,” “Oscar Winning Monolog” and “Start Every Sentence with a Letter of the Alphabet.”

Some Hotspurs! routines include audience participation. “Best Date / Worst Date” featured something unique. The group invited community theatre performer Michael Pliskin and his girlfriend Lauren to come up to the stage. The pair discussed some activities they like to do together. Building off of their stories, the group then performed two sketches. One enacted a perfect date between the couple, the second showed a horrible date between the two.

Your correspondent has written that no one can tell a story like Mr. Pliskin. It appears that no one can inspire a story like he does, either. Mr. Hager played him. Mr. Harris performed as Lauren. The two brought exaggerated caricatures of the couple to the stage. They acted out comical references to alcoholism and the teaching profession. “We’re teachers,” Mr. Harris said with a slur. “People trust us to work with and teach children.”

Local writer Thomas Halper expressed a theory about humor and national tragedies. He told your correspondent that the greater the tragedy the more extreme the jokes are in response to it. (A particularly gruesome one circulated after JFK’s assassination.) This reviewer found that interesting as he’d never heard anyone tell a joke referencing the events of 9/11.

Until now.

The group performed a game called “Oscar Winning Monolog.” The audience provided the “sexy occupation” of firefighter. Mr. Harris and Mr. Snellin delivered an improvised scene. At a crucial point, Mr. Rucci stopped them. He informed Mr. Harris, “Evan, this is your Oscar winning monolog.”

The spotlight shone on Mr. Harris. He improvised a speech about a fireman’s picnic that took place every year on September 11th: “except that one year.” While the group asked the audience “not to take to Twitter,” the way Mr. Newlin made the reference wasn’t offensive or in bad taste. The soliloquy about a firefighter who saves a clown, but not the children at a party however…

Comedian Bill Hicks observed: “It’s only funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” The Hotspurs! may have blazed a comedy trail regarding that one. They certainly scorched a few throats.

The “Start Every Sentence with A Letter of the Alphabet” routine required Mr. Hager, Mr. Harris, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Snellen to deliver sentences that began with the next letter of the alphabet. In other words, if one person said something that began with the letter d, the next person would start a sentence with the letter e. But, being the Hotspurs!, the group added a twist.

Before beginning this improv game, Mr. Rucci held up a bottle of hot sauce. The label instructed that it be diluted before use. Being the rebels they are, the Hotspurs! ignored the warning. Each member of the group took a spoonful of scalding seasoning. With each other’s screams in the background, they managed to complete the exercise. The four members crafted the requisite 26 sentences.

As of this writing, one hopes everyone is okay.

Each member of the group had his own stand out moment. People will be talking about Mr. Harris’ “Oscar Winning Monolog.” During the Dating Game, John Hager performed a dramatic rendition of Spider-man’s demise. While playing the director, Mr. O’Malley instructed Mr. Hager to put bleach in his eyes. “It’s my vision,” He said. “You don’t get to have any.” Mr. Snellen crafted the best one liner of the evening. An audience member suggested the question, “What’s something you could say to a hooker and your grandmother?” Mr. Snellen replied, “Take your teeth out.”

This reviewer had one criticism of the show. It began 15 minutes after the scheduled 8:00 PM start time. Some performers like to build dramatic tension by delaying their entry. This was a comedy show. The delay wasn’t necessary.

Obviously, audiences should leave the young children at home before attending a Hotspurs! performance. Of course, if a parent thinks it’s a good idea to take a child to see comedy improv, their kids will grow up with worse problems than seeing a Hotspurs! show.

The Hotspurs! have sold out Burlington County Footlighters multiple times. They sold close to 200 tickets for this gig. They will return to the Ritz Theatre on Friday, March 27th. Those interested in attending that show are strongly encouraged to purchase tickets now. If the group decide to give it an Easter theme, they may all come out dressed as bunnies. The seats in the back will sell fast.

 

A Night of Comedy Improv Featuring The Hotspurs! at The 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Back on February 23rd, the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters hosted their 7th annual 24-Hour Play Festival. For that endeavor, teams of actors arrived at the theatre on a Friday evening. They selected genres, props, characters, tasks, lines and delivery styles at random. They then had 24 hours to write and perform a play using these attributes. A comedy trio called the Perfect Nobodies consisting of John Hager, Evan Harris and Andrew Snellen competed. They performed a comical take on a detective noir story called A Sleight of Hand.

Building upon that successful debut, the group added members Andrew Snellen and Brendan Rucci and changed their name to The Hotspurs!  This May 25th the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters hosted an evening with this quintet. Performers John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley, Andrew Snellin and Brendan Rucci teamed up for an hour-and-a-half of improvisational comedy. Their efforts were serious, but the results were hysterical.

It takes tremendous courage to take the stage without knowing what one will be performing. To add to the pressure Footlighters originally scheduled this event to take place in a 35 seat room. Because of the demand for tickets, the company moved the show to the 92 seat Main Stage. Even that forum sold out. At the show’s beginning, Mr. Harris announced that Burlington County Footlighters already booked the group for another show in August. “They haven’t even seen us do this one, yet!” He observed.

The bar was already pretty high before The Hotspurs! took the stage. Would their performance meet expectations?

The group selected an outstanding opening. In addition to performing in sketches, Brendan Rucci provided musical accompaniment on the keyboard. He played a somber piece written in a minor key. Then an upbeat number broadcast through the auditorium as the other performers entered the stage. It set the tone for the festivities to come.

The evening included a series of “improv games” that the performers presented. They solicited ideas from the audience and then they performed a scene based on their suggestions.

They began the show with one called Half Life. The group asked the audience to provide both a relationship and a location. Performers Sean O’Malley and Andrew Snellen enacted an exchange between a father and son at an amusement park: but with a twist. The actors had to play the same scene during five different time intervals. They first had one minute to perform it, then 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then seven seconds and, finally, one second. Their witty banter over whether the son (Mr. Snellen) inherited his beard from his father or mother made for one of the evening’s most hysterical moments.

Mr. Harris and Mr. Hager reprised the detective noir theme from their earlier work. When asked to provide a location for the scene of the crime, the audience selected a basketball court. Mr. Harris played an investigator attempting to locate a basketball stolen from him decades prior. Mr. Hager took on the role of the thief. Mr. Hager provided creative and unanticipated responses to the detective’s inquiries. To Mr. Harris’ credit, he managed to stay in character, not laugh and work with the unusual material Mr. Hager gave him.

After soliciting ideas from the audience, The Hotspurs! added their own improvisational ideas. The audience gave the setting of a dentist’s office in Cuba for the Director game. John Hager, Evan Harris and Sean O’Malley played a group of actors performing the scene. Mr. Snellen entered and performed the role of director. He told them to re-enact the scene as an interpretive dance. Following that rendition he had them play it as an opera. After that one, he had them perform it as a PBS special for children.

New Choice made one of the more challenging games. The audience provided the setting in which Mr. Harris’ character took Mr. Hager’s to a funeral for a first date. As they improvised the scene, the other performers would say, “new choice.” That cued Mr. Harris and Mr. Hager to change their responses. That’s quite a challenge for actors making up lines on the spot while in front of a live audience. The fact that the scene entailed an $18 funeral for a dog didn’t make it any less difficult.

The Hotspurs! added the musical genre to their repertoire, as well. Mr. Hager, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Snellen performed the role of a three headed Broadway star. The audience selected The Cows Are Coming Home as the title of the show. They tasked the performers to sing a song entitled “Milk Me.” Each performer delivered one word that the one who followed would add to.

The group concluded the show with a musical number, as well. The audience picked “having a baby” as the topic. Mr. Rucci accompanied the group on piano as they sang about the miracle of life in the form of an Irish drinking song.

All the performers showed great poise and imagination. My favorite moment occurred during the “scenes from a hat” game. When given the topic of “the world’s worst game show host,” Mr. Harris came up with the following: “One gun. Six chambers. One bullet. One million dollars.”

I had one criticism of the show. It began nine minutes late. This was more due to the audience than either the performers or the company. Long after the 8:00 PM scheduled start-time I noticed audience members still taking their seats. This isn’t an issue endemic to community theatre performances. I would remind everyone of some wise advice someone gave me: “If you can’t be on time, be early.”

Comedy is serious business. It’s always amazed me that farces such as Noises Off! and The Fox on the Fairway are more intricate and involved than anything Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill ever wrote. Improv isn’t much easier. The ability to write material on the spot that’s funny and then be able to perform it without laughing is quite a skill.  It’s a talent at which The Hotspurs! excel. The group will return to the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters on August 24th.