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Twin Cities improv: The Mustache Rangers and Jill Bernard

For quite a few years, there was a store near Lake and Lyndale called the Lava Lounge, which seemed to be in the business of selling upscale clothes to club kids, or, perhaps, exotic dancers. It had a selection of vinyl nurses' uniforms, and police hats, and sold long and very pointed boots with heels that were so very high that a woman wearing them risked actually tumbling off them and downward, downward, to her doom. They also had a selection of expensive glass pipes that were, as I understood it, intended for tobacco use AND ONLY TOBACCO use, and, I suspect like a lot of places that sell pipes such as these, that's where a lot of their profits came from.
 
They closed down a while ago, and, on Thursdays, their space is occupied by two astronauts who seem to have been trained by Victorian-era Canadian Mounties in order to appear in a 1930s Republic serial film in which nothing happens.

The Mustache Rangers at HUGE Theater
Courtesy of the Mustache Rangers
The Mustache Rangers at HUGE Theater

The space, you see, has been taken over by an improv theater called HUGE, and tonight it belongs to the improv duo of Corey Anderson and Aric McKeown, collectively known as The Mustache Rangers. The team are former high-school chums, and have been performing in these roles for five years together, albeit as guest performers doing relatively brief shows. Their sets tended to consist of the two Rangers, whom I will detail shortly, sitting in chairs and bickering with each other. As of a few weeks ago, they were given an hour-long slot at HUGE, and they fill the hour by doing more of the same.
 
An hour may sound like a fairly sizable investment of time to watch a show like this. After all, the Mustache Rangers are fond of awkward pauses — so fond of them that they generally start their show by not talking at all, and will just keep not talking for as long as they want. And they tend to sit in their chairs and not move from them, unless they absolutely must. And they behave quite irritably toward each other, like an older couple whose relationship is so fraught with past disappointments that even the most innocuous of exchanges can lead to verbal meltdowns.
 
But there are going to be people for whom the time passes quickly, and there are going to be a lot of them. Firstly, because all of this is in service to a perfectly daffy premise: That these two fellows are space travelers, which they are, it must be said, quite bad at. They sometimes have missions, which are typically just chores, the equivalent of traveling to a planet to do laundry. And they have a habit of blowing up whatever planet they visit.
 
Secondly, there's something oddly charming about their characters. The two performers told me that they literally based their performances on their mustaches, which they purchased together five years ago and haven't replaced. which means their costume mustaches are, if examined closely, a mess of spirit gum and flakes of dead skin. Anderson's mustache is one of those blint, walrus-like things that cause one to imagine a pompous British major, and so that is what Anderson plays — his character is the sort that is given to grand pronouncements and big decisions, as offered in a stentorian voice, all of which are perfectly terrible. McKeown, in the meanwhile, has a tidy, prim mustache like a 1920s movie star might wear, and he plays his character as prissy and self-absorbed as a result.
 
They're performing their shows episodically now, with each new week continuing a storyline established the previous week. I sat in last Thursday, which began after the duo had visited an alien world, had several disturbing sexual encounters there, and then destroyed the planet, leaving McKeown's character worried he was pregnant. The entire episode was devoted to this, with the first half existing as a sort of study in the permutations of uncertainty — the team imagined what sort of alien might be inside McKeown, and how it might reveal itself, including the horrible possibility of it just growing to the exact shape and size of McKeown and then suddenly flexing itself, causing McKeown's skin to fly off like a burst balloon.
 
But there is only so long you can go without knowing something, and so, midway through, McKeown mimed shoving a camera down his throat. And since these two spacemen aren't especially good at what they do, he mimed choking on it, devoting perhaps five minutes to gagging and staring about with wild eyes. With the photographs developed, the facts of the case became known: There is, indeed, an alien inside him, grown to considerably size in just a few hours, and with multiple arms.
 
The second half of the show was then devoted to the permutations of certainty. The two bickered over keeping the alien child. They then bickered about, should they keep it, what sort of Olympic event it might be especially good at; McKeown argued swimming, Anderson argued shot put. They argued about Anderson taking the responsibility of being a godfather to the alien child, and then they argued about what the inevitable film script that would result from that storyline would be like. And so we left them, floating in space, engaged in an absurd pettifog about an impossible situation, the story to be picked up next week — tonight, in fact, if they remember what happened the previous week. Sometimes they don't, and just start a new storyline.
 
While we're on the subject of HUGE theater, this past week I read a book by one of the theater's founders, Jill Bernard, who has been a part of the Twin Cities improv community for a dozen years or so. She teaches the subject of improv, and has her own one-woman show called "Drum Machine," which is rather remarkable. It consists of her improvising an entire musical to the accompaniment of a small electronic beat box, and, as with the best improv, you get over being dazzled by it pretty quickly and settle into just enjoying the story being told, which is inevitably terrific fun.

Jill Bernard's Small Cute Book of Improv
Jill Bernard's Small Cute Book of Improv

Bernard's book is called "The Small, Cute Book of Improv," and it is pretty much what it says on the tin: It's bijou and it's adorable. The whole thing is handwritten and illustrated with pictures of robots, for no good reason, but the book contains a handful of tips Bernard has for the aspiring improviser. I should mention now that I made use of Bernard in a short film I made some months ago, along with several other local improvisers, and did so primarily because they're about as good at what they do as you could hope for. The book gives some indication why, mostly because its overarching theme seems to be "don't ruin the fun." As somebody who has done improv in the past, and probably has ruined the fun a fair amount of times myself, I can speak from experience when I say that this is very good advice.
 
The funny thing about improv is that it is a pretty robust way to create entertainment, as the Mustache Rangers demonstrate. It is entirely possible to have two people sit in two chairs and argue with each other for an hour and create something entertaining. But the moment you start imposing yourself on improv, or trying to control a scene, or trying to fix things in a scene, it just starts falling apart, and then the impulse is going to be to try to fix it some more, and then it just falls apart more until somebody merciful claps their hands and puts and end to the whole tortuous undertaking. Bernard offers a few pieces of advice about how to just try to enjoy yourself in a scene, no matter how bananas it seems to be going.
 
This book isn't just useful for improvisers. We all know people who are utter spoilsports. They'll spontaneously veto any suggestions that sound like fun, and will wander around parties looking for people who seem to be having too much fun in order to try to throw a wet blanket on them. I'd suggest getting them a copy if this book — it's only $5. They don't need to know why you're giving it to them as a gift. Just tell them it's a picture book about robots.

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