"This feels like a grownup outing," whispered my friend, as we sat in the Stensrud Playhouse on a recent Friday, drinking Fat Tire and waiting for Zootown Improv to start. Around us, people sat at tables chatting and sipping wine. A keyboardist played jazzy tunes and a server walked around offering hummus plates provided by the Silk Road. The evening did feel grownup, in the classy, glamorous sense of the word.
Then, the lights dimmed and a man and woman appeared on stage, holding hands and talking about their honeymoon camping trip. A young blond woman strode out, dressed as a park ranger, and shamelessly hit on the newlywed man. "Beat it," the park ranger said to the bride, before insisting that as an enforcer of park rules, she'd need to give a thorough pat-down to the young man. He squealed as she reached for his butt, and the lights dropped. A not-so-grownup tone had been set.
Classy as the Stensrud feels, the Zootown Improv comedy is, thankfully, just the right amount of cheeky and silly. The historic building, with its brick exterior, enormous windows, dark wood-paneled interior and vintage furnishings, has always seemed imbued with an intriguing, fantastical vibe to me. That vintage ambience provides the perfect setting—and makes light-hearted humor seem all the more irreverent—for its new role as an intimate theater. Veteran performer Jackie Stermitz, a Montanan with extensive experience in LA theaters, bought the Stensrud from previous renovator and owner Mark Kersting in February. Stermitz says her goal was to bring sketch and improv comedy to Missoula, like the kind she was familiar with at the legendary Groundlings troupe in LA.
The venue is still very recognizably the Stensrud, but with a new small stage on the east side of the room and a raised tier for seating on the opposite side, plus a sound and lighting rig. Besides the Friday night sketch comedy and improv, the playhouse regular hosts a Bullets for Broadway murder-mystery dinner theater on Saturday and Sunday.
For the improv shows, two casts of local actors perform on alternate weeks, and the night I went, the First Cousins group—three men and two women—performed improv and scripted skits, a la "Saturday Night Live."
Improv is essentially just a group of goofy people playing acting games, and usually the audience will be asked to provide suggestions, so expect to get roped in if you're seated up front. In one game, for instance, the First Cousins sought two volunteers from the audience to make sound effects while actors told a story. One volunteer said he'd do it, but warned that he could only make fart noises, so that, of course, was hysterical. The fun of watching improv is to see whip-smart people transform silly suggestions into a hilarious bit; or to see how an actor overcomes it when a joke falls flat. I'm glad to report the First Cousins did pretty well at both.
The First Cousins' strength, though, was in scripted sketches, which were mostly smart-alec jokes with Missoula-oriented twists. The bits poked fun at different kinds of people, but never to the point of cruelty, which I very much appreciate. In "Eco Bros," two men sit at a coffee shop trying to out-hippie one another—one man, played by Patrick Bush, insists he's wearing "the Smartest Wool" socks. First Cousins' director, Sara Reynolds, has a Rachel Dratch kind of look and stage presence, and she was excellently snappy and off-kilter in improvised bits and sketches alike.
University of Montana filmmaking student Jacob Godbey wrote some of the sketches with the most hip, current-day punchlines. In "Boy Bra," which reminded me of The Lonely Island's joke-raps for "SNL," Godbey and Alex Tait put on hoodies and rapped about how dudes need their own brand of lingerie. Tait and Godbey flubbed a couple lines, but I was still impressed by their rhyming and rapping skills.
All in all, Zootown Improv makes for a fun evening and a great addition to Missoula's live theater scene. There's something admirably old-school about watching regular, plain-clothes people create funny stories out of nothing but thin air and their own wits.
The Stensrud Playhouse hosts Zootown Improv on Fridays at 8 PM, $15/$22 for two. More improv follows at 10 PM, $5/free for those who attend the 8 PM show. Visit stensrudplayhouse.com.