Sean O’Malley

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.

 

Night of the Living Hotspurs! at Burlington County Footlighters

They’re baaaack!

This October 18th marked the return of the Hotspurs! to Burlington County Footlighters. The comedy team of John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley, Brendan Rucci and Andrew Snellin entertained the audience with their unique brand of improvisational humor. Your correspondent attended the Friday, October 18th performance.

For this Halloween themed installment of the Hotspurs! Burlington County Footlighters established proper mood. In addition to the usual multi-colored square and rectangle decorum, the organizers added a few items to create a spooky ambiance. They included a series of chains draped about the stage, along with cuffs and a dark hued tombstone. A metal tub of water set upon a pedestal. It had a more eerie purpose than serving as a means for apple bobbing, but more on that later.

For the third consecutive time tickets to a Hotspurs! performance at Footlighters sold out. The group made the announcement 48 hours before the show. So would this performance justify the hype? Or would the audience feel like they were the ones in cuffs and chains throughout the evening?

The Hotspurs! set the comedic tone upon entering the stage. All five members wore Halloween costumes. The most outrageous were Mr. Rucci in a dress and Mr. Hager disguised as a banana. The performers explained they each thought the group decided upon different Halloween themes.

The opening served as the only scripted portion of the evening. The Hotspurs! improvised all the other sketches they performed.

The team commenced their spur-of-the-moment hijinks with their classic improv game: “Half-Life.” The audience provided Disney World as a location that someone wouldn’t expect to find haunted. Performers Sean O’Malley and Andrew Snellin had one minute to enact a sketch based on that suggestion. Following that, they then had to perform it in 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then seven seconds, then three seconds and, finally, one second. Funny (and quick) banter between Goofy and Mickey resulted.

The four members of the group then combined for another improv game. They called this one “Pan Left.” It entailed a team of two members each performing a sketch together. When Mr. Rucci yelled: “Pan left”, they would rotate and two different Hotspurs! members would act out the next sketch. Based upon the audience’s suggestions, one pair performed a scene in a church, another did one involving the internet and the last one did a routine that included a snake. As much as this challenged the performers, they executed the added task of keeping the dialog comical.

The Hotspurs! revisited their classic “Press Conference” routine for this performance. John Hager, Evan Harris, Brenden Rucci, and Andrew Snellin played reporters. The audience provided the scenario: “Hannibal Lechter becomes vegan.” Without knowing that, Sean O’Malley had to guess what the spectators suggested based upon the reporters’ questions. In addition to providing creative responses, Mr. O’Malley guessed his character.

The team also reprised their “Scenes from a Hat” routine. Prior to the performance, audience members wrote down scenes. Andrew Snellin showed that there’s a place for dark, high-minded humor even in improvisational comedy. He came up with the best line of the evening. In response to the prompt: things you would say to your best friend, but not your partner, he replied, “You’re my best friend.”

As unique as these routines were, the Hotspurs! opted to push the comedy envelope on this evening. Evan Harris and Sean O’Malley played a skit called “Pillars.” They had to improvise a sketch based on the audience’s suggestion. In this case it recommended: “crystal ball.” The group added a twist with this one.

They invited two audience members to come on stage. The participants would move the performers’ arms and legs. Mr. Harris and Mr. O’Malley would adjust the dialog based on the posture the audience members set for them. The latter proved pretty creative. One has to credit the performers for getting through the sketch without laughing: unlike the spectators.

The Hotspurs! added a dramatic scene to their repertoire. This one included a twist. Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Harris performed opposite one another while the other group members placed marshmallows in their mouths. Their comments included some of the most intelligent things this reviewer has heard in weeks.

The team included a skit called “Bartender.” Andrew Snellin played the lead role. Mr. Hager, Mr. Harris and Mr. O’Malley portrayed his customers. Each told him of a problem they had. Mr. Snellin provided advice. While a difficult endeavor to execute spontaneously in front of a live audience, the team included an additional complication: they performed all of this in song. Mr. Rucci accompanied on the keyboards. Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn’t craft as witty a take on clown assassins: and he’s had an entire lifetime to do so. The Hotspurs! pulled it off in a few minutes.

The sell-out crowd at Footlighters showed the group’s real-life skills at salesmanship. It seemed fitting that they applied them within a comedic framework. Mr. Hager and Mr. Harris acted out an infomercial. The purpose was to help people stop biting their nails. The two used a box of props. They didn’t know its contents until they opened it on stage. One must credit the performers themselves for not biting their nails when faced with this uncertainty.

As this was a Halloween themed show, the team concluded with a bit of terror. They utilized the metal tub mentioned earlier as a prop for their “Bucket of Death” routine. The audience provided the topic of “doppelganger.” Mr. Harris explained the set-up. One member of the team would have his head submerged in water at all times; they would alternate who that was throughout the sketch. The others would enact the scene until either: “it comes to a good conclusion or one of us drowns.” I guess that explains why the Hotspurs! were performing the “Bucket of Death” for the first time.

During a Jeopardy! Style game called “Nouns” the answer posed to the four group members was Hotspurs! Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Harris both came up the same question: “What is a way to waste $10?” This reviewer and the audience would disagree. The group once again provided wonderful comedy entertainment to a full house. The real question is: “What’s a bargain for improvisational comedy entertainment?”

 

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.