If you’re a believer in the concept that life is theater and theater is life – or at least could or should be – you may well be aware of the existence of Improv Everywhere, the New York City-based performance art group that bills itself as a “prank collective.” Since its founding in 2001, IE’s members, or “agents,” have been instigating public comedy happenings that add a dose of unexpected “chaos and joy” to the lives of passersby. What they do is the modern equivalent of the 1960s TV show Candid Camera, but without the humiliation factor.
The group’s most famous “mission,” captured on a video that received more than 35 million views on YouTube, was “Frozen Grand Central,” which required more than 200 IE agents to stand stock-still simultaneously in Grand Central Terminal for five full minutes. On a smaller scale, they do things like place an order in the name of Spartacus at a Starbucks and then have a group of actors dressed as Roman legionnaires burst in the door exclaiming, “I am Spartacus!” when the barista calls out the name. Or they launch a pirate ship on the lake in Central Park and accost unsuspecting rowboaters. Once a year, they invite followers to a mass public gathering where thousands of people listen to instructions over a headset and do the same bizarrely inexplicable thing at the same time – all in a spirit of fun.
Most recently, IE was recruited by Disney+ to create an original TV series called Pixar IRL, in which actors embodying animated characters from Pixar movies will interact with people on the streets of New York. Among the troupe who will soon be appearing on your home screen is a sketch comedian/writer named Ally Condrath, creator of Dinner for One and Life Sucks. Condrath is a bundle of energy on the road to stardom. And for this month only, she’s in New Paltz, stealing the stage out from under three other talented actors in Denizen Theatre’s first show of the winter season, Christmastown: A Holiday Noir.
There are plenty of good reasons to go see this play, the clever writing by Seattle-based playwright Wayne Rawley high on the list. Set in a gritty city where it’s always almost Christmas but never actually so, its admittedly thin, not-particularly-compelling plot pits a cynical, down-at-heels private eye (Giovanni Naarendorp) against shadowy forces who appear to have kidnapped Santa Claus. It’s not a whodunit to see for the brilliant twists and turns, but rather for its relentless, rapid-fire stream of puns on familiar Christmas song lyrics.
Naarendorp does a fine job in the Sam Spade mold, ably abetted by Valerie Lynn Brett as his client, an unusually tall and lissome elf from Santa’s workshop. Brett also takes a couple of other minor roles, but Jake Mann and Ally Condrath are the supporting cast who swoop in to portray all the other characters. Whether it’s an elf she’s playing, a cabbie or a hardboiled newspaper reporter who’s Nick’s former flame, the black-box theater stage lights up by megawatts every time Condrath emerges. She takes a fun, lightweight evening of holiday-themed entertainment to a whole new level of zing. Don’t miss this chance to catch her before she gets super-famous.
Christmastown: A Holiday Noir, directed by Ben Williamson, runs through December 29, with performances beginning at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets cost $28 general admission, $24 for seniors and youth under 30, $5 for students. To purchase, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35097/production/1018729. Denizen Theatre is located in the Water Street Market at 10 Main Street in New Paltz. For more info, visit www.denizentheatre.com.
– Frances Marion Platt