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‘The Death Show’ displays joys of life

By Iain Oldman, Point Park News Service: 

PRELUDE

The green room at the Arcade Comedy Theater is currently cold, like a morgue. Ayne Terceira, an improv actor on the show, is huddled inside her jacket trying to keep warm while the rest of the cast file into the green room, one by one, stopping in front of the mirror to adjust their ties.

Photo credit: Nicole Havranek

Greg Gillotti, the brainchild behind this production, waits on the couch for the other actors to show up, compensating for the lack of central air with a vest. After a few comments, Gillotti finds a small space heater in the corner of the room and flips it on. It yields nothing.

Slowly, the cast begins to fill out. Jerome Fitzgerald and Justin Vetter, an improv duo on their own, arrive together only minutes before show time. Brian Grey changes into an ironed button down shirt.

Alex O’Brien begins her pre-show movement exercises, a slow pace of casual stretches and the wriggling of limbs. O’Brien stars in Arcade Comedy Theater’s house team, but this is her first time on this show. She is wearing a black dress. So is Terceira. In fact, all of the actors have shed their coats and don formal wear – slacks, waxed loafers, business flats, and tight fitting Oxfords shirts tucked into their waists.

The show is sold out. Thirty feet away, separated by a thin metal door and a velvet curtain, the audience begins to find their seats.

They are here to watch the Death Show.

PROCESSION

Gillotti is a staple on the Pittsburgh improv comedy circuit, featuring as a guest on several shows in the city. He and Grey also have their own duo – Iguanatron – but the Death Show is the fruit of Gillotti’s own ambition and creativity.

Photo credit: Nicole Havranek

“The point of the show was to play on eulogies as a mechanism for doing monologues,” Gillotti explained. “I was brainstorming show ideas and I want to do something that is fun and light hearted that is picked up easily by the audience and actors. Eulogies just seemed like a really great mechanism.”

The Death Show plays out as a fictional funeral service improvised around a loose set of recurring themes and jokes. An audience member volunteers their belongings – a purse, wallet or tote bag – and the actors dissect the odds and ends found within, slowly interrogating the spectator and picking up small, tawdry details about their life.

There’s a morbid curiosity inherently embedded in the fabric of the show, but the tone remains infinitely more jovial and lighthearted. The pauses between rich laughter rarely linger.

“We work really hard to make it positive. When we interact with the audience we keep it very light and make it more of a celebration of life,” Gillotti said.

SELECTIONS

The show is underway now, and a young man named Colin reaches out to the improv team, extending forward a white, plastic grocery bag bulging with curios and backstory.

“This feels like a trap,” Gillotti jokes.

He has ignored a man in the front row who overzealously shot his wallet into the air at the request for a volunteer, opting for Colin, instead. Gillotti takes the bag from the young man and hands it to the cast, who tear into it like cackling hyenas. Their thirsts unslaked, the crew demands Colin’s wallet, as well, and he relents.

Photo credit: Nicole Havranek

Inside the bag, the crew finds evidence of an odyssey at the Waterworks Mall: two phone chargers, a receipt from McDonald’s, a student ID from Community College of Allegheny County, Kit Kat bars, a soda, a Gamestop card identifying Colin as a “GamerGuy,” a Walmart gift card, one “sticky” dime (according to Terceira) and one pink, fluffy teddy bear.

What?

Colin tells the room that he won the pink bear out of a crane machine at Walmart. Gillotti begins to cross-examine the student, and Colin responds, “I knew my girlfriend would like it.” The entire crowd, apparently engulfed in affection, uniformly responds with an “aww.” The actors rib Colin over the prevalence of chocolate and ice cream in his diet, but the young man assures the room that his dentist recently told him that his teeth were in great shape. Grey immediately pounces on the fact that Colin used air quotes when he said “great shape.”

But the atmosphere of the theater abruptly descends into a darker, more somber tone as the lights quickly dim down. A single, pale blue light focuses on four chairs aligned in a row in the center of the stage, where Gillotti lies down, holding a bouquet of flowers to his chest.

The other actors scuttle to the sides of the shade, enveloped in a violet dimness. A violin player off stage begins playing a sobering melody, the room falls into darkness and the sounds of weeping being to escape the stage, infiltrating the sensibilities of the audience.

The funeral is now underway.

READINGS

Grey is the first actor to walk to the “coffin,” standing behind the chairs, bathed in blue light and peering down at a rigid Gillotti, who is filling the role of the corpse. The violin player has appropriately set the mood for the opening eulogy, immediately numbing the audience through a procession of minor key melodies.

Grey introduces himself as Dr. McKenna, Colin’s dentist. Cue laughter.

Dr. McKenna delivers his eulogy to the funeral crowd, telling the audience about Colin’s excellent teeth and all of the “work” he’s done for Colin and his family. Grey uses air quotes throughout the monologue as a way to punch up a comment, returning to the gag as a way to drum up humor over and over again.

But there are moments of sweet, authentic humanity spattered throughout Grey’s monologue that complement the absurdity of the moment.

Dr. McKenna’s last line focuses on the spirit of his patient, telling the audience, “Love – the only morphine we all need,” before the lights descend into total darkness again.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

“I don’t want to say that I’m morose, but I’m often death-occupied in my thoughts,” Gillotti admits.

Photo credit: Nicole Havranek

Although The Death Show is blunt in both its name and aesthetic presentation, Gillotti doesn’t see it as inherently morbid or dark. Since its inception in 2011, Gillotti insists that he and his casts have worked “really hard to make [the show] positive.”

“We realize that the expectation of the show could go bad early,” Gillotti explains. “We do make a point that this is way more of a New Orleans festival funeral than anything else.”

And the show reflects this. In between the morbid, darkly lit eulogies the improv actors push the chairs back to the theater’s red brick wall, flood the stage with light and spend the next 15 minutes immersing the audience in more traditional improvisational comedy theater.

The bits are more light hearted and, well, goofy. Every actor explodes with energy and zeal in their interactions, or withdraws into a character of absurd nature, volleying dialogue between each other with wit and expert comedic timing.

In a span of minutes, Vetter and O’Brien go on a date in a frozen yogurt shop. Terceira and Gillotti play a married couple actively getting divorced in an operating room. Fitzgerald and Grey explode with wonder as they watch Terceira play pinball on an imaginary machine, each actor encouraging the other to ascend in volume and fanaticism.

These actors have vivancy and life, all of them, and it all seems constructed to spare the audience of the fatigue set on by maudlin depression.

But the mood quickly drops again. Lights begin flashing on the actors on stage, and suddenly the cast scurry around each other, dragging the chairs forward before Gillotti plops down on them like a plank, clutching flowers to his chest, and the unmistakable sound of weeping women suffocate any simmering laughter.

CONDOLENCES

O’Brien was the second actor to give Colin’s corpse a eulogy, slipping into the character of an arch-rival crane machine player.

“I respect the hell out of you, GamerGuy,” she quips, staring down on Gillotti with a remorseful admiration.

Vetter delivered the final eulogy of the night, crafting the character of Roy Moriarty, the geriatric chief of security at the Waterworks Mall. At points, Moriarty straps on a helmet and rides around the coffin on a segway, almost knocking the coffin (and Colin’s corpse) to the ground on a few occasions.

“I’m going to miss Chris,” Moriarty belts out. Two funeral attendees whisper out “Colin. Colin,” from the side of the stage, correcting the confused security guard. Moriarty recounts the recently deceased’s routine at Waterworks. “He didn’t really care much for Burgatory,” Moriarty reports. “Considered it sacrilege.”

Each one of the eulogies hit for the actors. The crowd, despite the physical reminder of their inherent mortality, laps up each joke the improv players toss their way during the monologues. The speakers are seemingly battling the cascading shadow set forth by the show’s music and lighting, but the crowd comes out of each lamenting eulogy all smiles, beating back the promise of death.

OBITUARY

Colin himself gives the final monologue of the night. Once more, the edges of the room get swallowed up by a curtain of shadows, leaving Gillotti alone in a circle of light, seemingly a halo, to deliver his final message to the world.

But something has changed. Gillotti begins delivering his monologue with a cheerful inflection and the spirit of the background music ascends in pursuit. Colin speaks to the audience as if they are watching the student on his YouTube channel, looping references back to the three eulogists.

“The security guard keeps calling me ‘Condor.’ No one is named ‘Condor,’” Colin says.

He is positive, hopeful and insightful.

“I’m starting to narrow down what I don’t want in this world, and that’s just as important as knowing what you do want,” Colin tells the audience. “Follow your dreams, find your passion, like and hit subscribe below and I’ll find you on the other side of this.”

The lights kick on. Instantaneously, the actors are showered in thunderous applause and Gillotti thanks the cast and the audience before directing the praise to the show’s volunteer and star – Colin.

As the room begins to empty out, the cast leads the audience in a chant of “Condor! Condor!”

This piece is part of a project on Apocalyptic writing. It will be featured in a print magazine that will be presented at the 8th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium on Friday, April 21, 2017 in the Center for Media Innovation on Point Park University’s campus. 

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