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I see a lot of improv, most of it is good, some of it is horrendous, and I can say the majority of Chicago improvisers strive to live out the high-minded goals of storytelling and character integrity described above. pH Productions' "pHrenzy," however, doesn't seem to care much about these things, and its show was quite possibly the most fun I've had watching improv in years.
The format of the late-night show involves six performers doing quick short-form scenes and being progressively voted off (or voted back in), based on audience applause. The cutthroat competition angle can be unnerving, as it puts you in the awkward position of telling an actor you don't want to see him or her anymore. Meanwhile, the team's coach inserts himself into the action, arbitrarily making up new rules and "benching" performers when they displease him.
Despite or because of these constraints, the group scores with the kind of high energy, intellectual anarchy that reminds one of why improv is fun in the first place. The show is titled aptly, as we do see a great deal of fast-paced, friendly work in this high pressure environment, which brings out the best in its players.
Strongest cast members included Adal Rifai and the evening's winner, Tristan Tanner, both of whom excelled in combining wit, slapstick and empathy. The entire group had fun putting their considerable collective intelligence into the service of being silly, a truly noble endeavor.
The performance I saw was sadly underattended, although this created an intimate and comfortable vibe. Still, a few more people filling those seats wouldn't hurt the atmosphere, so give these young people an hour of your weekend. — Rory Leahy
Chicago Reader - Highly Recommended
Some of the early-round rules were well conceived the night I attended, eliminating performers for employing classic crutches: variation-on-a-theme accents, playing children, stalling for time. Some of the freelance reffing was even better, punishing players for portrayals too hackneyed, heady or close to home; host Kristine Kitts was given—and deserved—a big round of applause. The second half was less, well, fair; on the other hand, watching selfless-in-theory improv get ground down to its egomaniacal core is always a hoot.
None of this would work without a practiced, talented troupe—the gimmickry’s actually a serious drag on momentum, requiring about twice the energy of your average show. Fortunately this fresh-faced, giddy bunch delivers the goods. Nothing revolutionary, just a lot of whip-smart, hopped-up old school fun. — Brian Nemtusak