Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theater celebrates 10 years of performing in 18 unique iterations of unscripted, nonlinear, realism-based scenes and monologues inspired by audience suggestions. Improvisation, yes, but not of the more familiar punchline and game-based type. This year's innovation, Questions, asks that we each write a question on an index card and submit it anonymously. "Anything that's been on your mind lately," they suggest, "personal or global, emotional or intellectual, mundane or spiritual.”
From there, artistic director Bobbi Block and company create a new show. I've seen Tongue & Groove many times and I've never been disappointed. I've also never doubted that their smart, talented, empathic actors are creating dialogue and situations on the spot.
No question too small
At last Saturday's performance, the performers included Block plus Josh Holober-Ward, Matt Lydon, Seth Reighgott, Carrie Spaulding, and Joy Weir, with musician Carol Moog (on the harmonica!): about half the current company. They used several dozen audience questions, starting with "What the fuck?" — which turned into a funny, yet painfully real, scene about a husband reacting to news that his wife is pregnant. Other scenarios included an actor bombing as Hamlet, a morose girl gardening with her aunt, and a dad with two teens watching hurricane coverage.
These four scenes were revisited in the 65-minute show's later half. Other uses of questions included two rapid-fire sessions, in which one actor read a question ("What is the formula for happiness?") and four others each gave answers. Another scenario cast actors as hosts of talk shows, presentations, and podcasts, with two or three "experts" answering.
…Or too large
I was hesitant to write a big "Is there a God?" question, but someone did, and the answers were both funny and thoughtful. Tongue & Groove terms their show a "montage," and that's accurate. They're like a John Cage art installation: random pieces juxtaposed, a collage that adds up to something for us to define. In Saturday's show, I sensed a reconciliation theme — but not all characters reconciled, and none in the same way. Another might interpret it differently, however, and the next performance will, of course, be completely different.
What I find consistent in Tongue & Groove, no matter who performs, is their insight into genuine human feelings and situations, even as they make us laugh. They don't contrive theatrical spectacle with unlikely coincidences for quick laughs; they probe real life in all its humor and sadness, glory and shame.
"In the theater," Tristram Bernard wrote, "the audience wants to be surprised — but by things they expect." I often share this when discussing the latest movie adapted into a Broadway musical, but I also hope it's not always true. Tongue & Groove's success shows that some people want to be genuinely surprised, and that's what Tongue & Groove always delivers.