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Byron Woods

But seriously, folks...

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The crowd was having a pretty good time Friday night, when Transactors Improv Company played at Manbites Dog. Laughs? Sure, plenty of them. But something tells me the troupe is still going to be disappointed when I call their performance a decent night of improvisational comedy. Which it was--and which is all it was.

Judging by what--and how little--has been written about them, I suspect most critics have never exactly known what to do with the Transactors. Going by the uniformly appreciative notices to date, they're a top-flight comedy troupe, creating instant humor from random audience suggestions, doing fiendishly difficult work without a net.

But if I'm reading things correctly, there is at least one misconception in the sentence above. It's one the company doubtlessly benefits from, and one it arguably fosters with its ever-changing, invariably witty show titles.

It has to do with the term "improvisational comedy." It never appears in the Transactors' program; they never utter it from the stage, and it never shows up on the group's interesting website, www.transactors.org .

In its place, "improvisational theater" is the phrase consistently used in all three places to describe their stock in trade--a claim reinforced by the group's similarly repeated motto, "If you laugh, we're doing comedy; if you don't, we're doing drama."

So far, so fine--and actually, so ambitious. The techniques of improv can clearly be used to explore the darker end of the emotional spectrum as well as the lighter one: For years, theatrical auteurs like Anne Bogart and Ping Chong have incorporated improvisation into their playwrighting process, using it to mine character, scene and situation, and to get at still-gestating tragedy and drama.

In previous years, we'd seen a regularly changing lineup of artistic journeymen--including J. Chachula, Jay O'Berski, Carol Parker, Michele Vasquez and Kathy Williams--do that as well with Transactors. None of these can be called theatrical lightweights: Their presence in the company's lineup indicates the respect it's had on the regional stage.

But if Friday night's performance gives any indication of the present group's abilities, interests and range, I'm hard pressed to call it "improvisational theater." Not when "improv comedy" basically covers everything we saw.

Admittedly, improv comedy is difficult enough--so much so, in fact, that I think audiences and critics automatically lower their expectations accordingly when going in.

We know--or at least, we assume--that the show's not pre-scripted. We know performers will respond to audience suggestions on the spur of the moment. At one point they even construct a "musical" from one. C'mon, we'd be fools to expect Rodgers and Hammerstein.

So we don't. In fact, we expect nothing remotely near it. I'm tempted to call the circumstance the theatrical analogue of Bush's showings in the 2000 presidential debates: The expectations are so low that any achievement--no matter how small--can be taken as success.

Which is unfortunate, since the Transactor "musicals" I've seen have been little more than lengthy indulgences. I may have always caught them on off-nights. Or perhaps they haven't had that many nights on in the first place.

Saturday night's mini-musical--based on a clogged toilet--should have been mercifully killed after Greg Hohn's first stumbling "song." Part of improv involves knowing when a scene's gone bust, when it's time to move on. Instead, the troupe doggedly followed a bad idea into the ground, dutifully enacting that tired three-song, thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula they'd worked out ahead of time. What a waste--pun intended.

Particularly when other sequences were so fine, funny and imaginative. Nancy Pekar and Steve Warnick's funny early sketch played on the linguistic shorthand couples use with one another--although the improv element, letting the audience select which kitchen appliance one used, seemed ultimately inconsequential.

Troupe and audience got more of a workout from a sequence using a time period, place, relationship and an overheard phrase contributed from the audience (in order, Renaissance, Timbuktu, roommates, and "Can you hear me now?") to construct four simultaneous scenes where different characters segue from world to world by repeating the same tag line.

Later came the memorable "dark ride" section of the show. From the contributed place--a zoo--the troupe took the audience on a lights-out journey into a realm of the imagination normally limited to radio theater. We listened in a darkened theater, as the group enacted tourists at a zoo--and then gave voice to the animals they were watching. Rare magic, indeed.

But in these and other sketches throughout the night, the company members always seemed nine characters in search of a punch line. Younger company members and older ones alike routinely discarded dramatic possibilities throughout, burning through world after little world, in an apparently single-minded quest of joke.

Improv comedy, in short--and much of it was good. Which is fine, if the company wishes to do just that.

But I don't think it was improvisational theater. We've seen that from Transactors in the past, and hope to see it again.

Of course, autobiographical stage and screen performer Laurie Wolf would turn 50 just a little...differently...than the average person.

"A number of friends of mine turned 50 by having a beach trip and inviting a lot of people," she says.

"Me? I figure I'd do a show."

The result is on stage at Manbites Dog Friday and Saturday, Jan. 17 and 18, when Wolf presents her latest one-person performance, 50! Evolution of a Butch Lesbian. An update of sorts from her earlier signature piece, "In the OUTfield" which she's widely toured through the United States, the new work focuses on the parallels Wolf finds at present between the internal and the external, the personal and political worlds she simultaneously inhabits.

It's telling that she thinks much of the focus in all of these areas should be about one thing: "repairs."

"There's a phrase in Hebrew--tikkun olam. It means 'to repair the world'," Wolf says. "But to do that, you have to repair yourself, repair your own world as well. A lot of this show is about reclaiming connections between one another, repairing relationships in light of the world situation."

For Wolf, there's been no shortage of such work on the home front. She moved to Florida in 2000 to be with her father at the end of his life, to reclaim that relationship. In our conversation, she characterizes much of the last three years as "reclaiming my mother, my father, my family; doing the repair work it takes to become whole again."

She's unflinching but optimistic when assessing her place in the process of aging--an unavoidable topic in the show.

"As a physically trained performer and a mime, yes, there's the mourning of the declining part that the body goes through. But at the same time, there's this incredible internal knowledge and understanding, and experience--from working at it over a life's time. I think I do come away with a certain--wisdom?"

Then she slyly adds, "I might even be nearly old enough to be in love."

More revelations to come. This weekend, at Manbites Dog. EndBlock

OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS:
King Lear, Playmakers Repertory Company, Jan. 14--Feb. 8, 962-7529; David Copperfield: An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusion, BTI Center, Jan. 15, 834-4000; The Cemetery Club, Towne Players of Garner, Garner Historic Auditorium, Jan 15-24, 779-6144; Pippin, Hoof'n'Horn, Sheafer Theater, Jan. 15-25, 684-4444; Culture Crawl, Wellness Partners for the Arts, Durham, Jan. 16, 680-2562; African American Dance Ensemble, free concert, Enloe High School, Raleigh, Jan. 17, 839-1498; Holding On, staged reading, Actors Comedy Lab, Raleigh Little Theater, Jan. 17-18; Choreo Dance Sampler, PSI Theater, Durham Arts Council, 4 p.m., Jan. 18, 967-1176; Theatreworks: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, Stewart Theater, NCSU, 3 p.m., Jan. 18, 515-1100.

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