Out of Bounds Comedy Festival 2016: The Frank Mills, Loverboy, People of Earth

These three improv troupes gave us an earful at this year's OoB

Members of Loverboy at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival 2016 (Photo by Jay Mahavier)

Listening isn't an act you can usually hear, but when performers are improvising a scene in front of you, it becomes as audible as the words they speak. Indeed, it's in the words the improvisers speak that make it clear who's doing the listening in the scene. That was evident throughout the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival triple bill Saturday at the Stateside. All three troupes – Austin's Loverboy and the Frank Mills and L.A.'s People of Earth – proved how fully fleshed characters created on the fly can be when the folks creating them hear everything being said by their colleagues onstage.

Case in point: The Frank Mills, a troupe that's been impressing us for 10 years with the way its members all operate on the same wavelength, expanding character relationships, histories, and emotional palettes in improvised scenes with no apparent effort. Here, upon taking the audience suggestion "a movement in four parts" – a line from a song – four of the five members took seats in black chairs in a line across the stage, while the fifth, Dave Buckman, stood with his arms folded, patiently watching them. He finally broke the silence with a reference to their "preshow rituals" and how they were running 40 minutes late, at which point the seated performers immediately began miming activities in line with, well, a movement in four parts. A simple enough reference by Buckman, but the way Rachel Madorsky, Erika May McNichol, Bob McNichol, and Michael Jastroch all accepted the idea and subtly adjusted their gestures to present it was as smooth as whipped cream. And the cherry on top was Bob McNichol's apology on exiting his "stall" that they were all "recent converts to veganism," which prompted Buckman's stage manager to empathize: "I'm on a juice cleanse myself." That off-the-cuff remark became the basis for a row between Buckman's character and his wife when the scene shifted to their home, and an offhand complaint there about gossipy neighbors led to a hilarious scene with those neighbors (and their abnormally large, diaper-wearing cat, gleefully embodied by Erika May McNichol). Likewise, one line by a band member about a cello turned this unspecified musical group into a pretentious Kronos Quartet-esque ensemble. It was all richly comic, but what made it as amazing as it was delightful was the ease with which each new element was absorbed by everyone. They didn't have to work at listening to one another; it's just second nature to them now.

The same proved true of headliner troupe People on Earth. The 18-year history among the five performers was apparent in every moment, even as their extended scene grew more outrageous and chaotic. What began as an innocuous domestic scene of a divorced dad spending Christmas with his four sons escalated into a rowdy heist caper, with the boys and Dad trying to break into Domino's for some yuletide pizza. As soon as someone identified the four boys as quadruplets, they grew increasingly singleminded, to the point of sharing "four-way twinspeak" and mutant mental powers. Their rambunctiousness also spiraled into criminal behavior and violence, which could've sent the scene and the comedy off the rails, but everyone onstage took care to monitor the scene's tone and keep it from veering out of control. As with the Frank Mills, People of Earth took offhand references and made them keystones of the story. A line about watching Top Gun with their mom's boyfriend, the despised Jeff, grew into an obsession Jeff had with Eighties movies and then the quads quoting them in every situation. It was a gag that kept on giving only because the performers kept listening carefully to one another.

The members of Loverboy, holding down the bill's middle spot, had to listen to more than themselves. They base their improvised scenes on relationship stories told by a guest – in this case, Chris Cubas. This stand-up master's cringe-worthy tales of a long and terrible breakup and a humiliating display of teen affection to a girl who couldn't have been less interested in him were a gold mine of details, and it was delicious seeing how many of them the Loverboy women could extract and set in their own scenes, like gems in a crown: listening to a fight in the apartment upstairs, neighbors taping notes to your door, tipsy high schoolers, alcoholic parents. And while their scenes came and went quickly, without the kind of development seen in the work of the other troupes, Loverboy's members built them together, in quick, deft strokes. The improvisers of this troupe have keen ears that will serve them well in the future.

Out of Bounds Comedy Festival 2016: The Frank Mills, Loverboy, People of Earth

Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress
Sept. 3

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