Brendan Rucci

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.