HIGH CALIBRE PERFORMERS
THE SILENT TREATMENT
Presented by Playshop and the NZ Film Archive
at The Film Archive, Wellington
From 13 Jun 2014 to 14 Jun 2014
Reviewed by James McKinnon, 14 Jun 2014
The Silent Treatment is Playshop's answer to Mystery Science Theater 3000. Rather than wisecracking over an old lousy movie, though, the performers (Ralph McCubbin Howell, Jennifer O'Sullivan) and a musician (Amand Gerbault-Gaylor) improvise new dialogue, plots, characters and score, with a little help from the audience. (So I guess it's actually PlayShop's answer to What's Up Tiger Lily?, a hilarious Woody Allen-directed overdub of a Japanese James Bond rip-off.)
For the maiden voyage of this experiment, the film is a Hopalong Cassidy Western, one of over 60 produced between 1935 and 1948. Although it is billed as Six Shooter Justice, my research suggests that was a 1917 film and the Hopalong Cassidy filmography lists no such title so, amazingly, I am not sure which film I saw last night. However, I suspect it was much improved by the introduction of a nefarious plot involving fair trade coffee and a cure for the common stroke.
Reviewing improvised performance can feel pointless, since one is unable to predict the quality or even content of future performances based on the performance under consideration. But there are a few indices we can use to predict the likelihood of a good improvised performance, such as the calibre of the performers, the construction of the game (this is essentially a long-form improv game), the integration of the audience, and the appropriateness of the ‘givens' (in this case, the film).
Are the performers any good?
Yes! These are among the rootin'est, tootin'est live performers around, and they take to improvising film dialogue like a cowboy takes to spouting off folksy, homespun metaphors. Based on the high-powered .45 calibre performers, the likelihood of the performance sustaining a medium to high level of enjoyability for 75 minute is high to certain. While they sometimes struggled to keep their characters straight (not aided by the black-and-white film, which makes it hard to tell them apart visually), the improvisation was generally good and there were a few real gems among the characters.
Is the game well-conceived?
Yes. Improvising the score and dialogue of a film is a game with good potential to amuse. The rules are simple, but demanding enough to make it difficult for the performers, which is what the audience enjoys. Enough is left to the audience to make the game interesting every night, but not enough that one bonehead suggestion can derail the whole evening. Having said that, the game might benefit from some tweaking of the rules. The actors claim to have seen the movie, but not heard the soundtrack; while I understand why they didn't want to know too much, I wondered if they might have been better off had they been more familiar with their source. Or…
Are the given elements appropriate?
…perhaps the event would work better if they picked a source film that the audience was more familiar with. While the western seems like a good choice, this particular film is a very obscure example of a genre most of us know only through parody. Contemporary audiences remember Westerns mainly as Clint Eastwood /Sergio Leone joints, and Hopalong Cassidy is pretty obscure by comparison.
By way of analogy, if you were going to parody Elizabethan tragedy, you would probably use something by Shakespeare as your source, not Thomas Kyd. This film is so abundantly bizarre and defamiliarised by history that its casual racism, terrible editing, and weird plot might have been more hilarious to watch as-is. While I enjoyed the evening, I think the game would work better if the source film, or at least its genre, was at least slightly more familiar to the audience.
Is the audience used well?
I give this one four bullets out of six. The audience gets a couple of interesting tasks to do, but some of these get old fast, and need more variety (horses have more than one speed!), while others only occur once or so late that everyone has forgotten what they're doing.
Would I go back?
Yes. If this game comes back with different film, I will absolutely give it another shot.
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