McNichol & May: Harking back with style

Bob McNichol & Erika May are among the most literary improvisers in town, each of their spontaneous narratives carried along by the depth of the characters they create

"McNichol & May are a Chicago-trained improvisation duo that also happens to be married." So begins the biographical section of their website: a plain, simple statement to establish a reader's perspective before the data diverges into a pair of fractalish streams of more complex and varied facts. This is also the way Bob McNichol and Erika May unfold the improvised vignettes with which they frequently grace Austin stages, beginning from a simple, ordinary premise (or, yes, sometimes a wacky, unexpected one) and building narratives step by swiftly considered step, each story carried along by the depth of its characters.

These two are among the most literary improvisers in town. Not literary as in brimming with allusions to Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe" or the preferred tropes of Mikhail Bulgakov, but literary as in exceptionally character-driven. Even the more outlandish tangents that they explore spring from personalities spontaneously established to flesh out an audience suggestion.

McNichol (a tall, gangly Pennsylvanian with a Bob Newhart demeanor and wits sharper than a box cutter) and May (a fiercely talented Texas native who seems like the prettiest softball shortstop ever, whether she actually plays or not) met while studying and performing improv in Chicago, soaking in a few years of concentrated Del Closeness before bringing their own matrimonial closeness home to roost in the big, multibirded nest of the Austin Improv Collective. (They're also, with Rachel Madorsky and Dave Buckman, in the Frank Mills improv/sketch comedy troupe, more about which in a later profile.)

McNichol & May's recent performance as part of Salvage Vanguard Theater's Two Two series had them elaborating on the audience suggestions of Star Wars and "tea," presenting an array of characters in a variety of formats: doc-film interviews, self-improvement seminars, inner-city friendships, each of these leading to other scenes or intersecting with previous ones, spinning off in compelling fractals. It's always a treat when Erika May takes on a guy persona, lowering her voice and lumbering around the stage as if to embody Too Much Testosterone Man; how her husband manages to keep a straight face at these times, that's a mystery within the comedy. The audience, too, is hard put to keep a straight face during a McNichol & May show, although the humor is often incidental to the character development as the pair purveys their distinctly retro version of improvisation, evoking the more finely tuned styles of a less hyperbolic time.

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