THE TEAM BEHIND FERRARI MCSPEEDY, JOE BOZIC AND MIKE FOTIS, are quite well known around the Twin Cities' comedy scene for their improv chops, which are good enough that the strongest criticism I have ever been able to offer is that they are sometimes a little show-offy about the matter, with Fotis, in particular, getting caught up in whatever he's doing onstage and exploding like a sort of dazzling verbal firecracker -- it's great fun to watch, but doesn't always serve the scene being improvised.
But even this small criticism doesn't apply to the shows they script -- or, at least, to the ones I have seen, which include this year's Fringe show, Speech!, along with another festival entry from a half-decade ago called Punk Rock Omaha. There's still an anarchic sense of structure in their scripted work, and a willingness just to dig into a joke and see how far it will go. But while their scripted style may loose, it's never accompanied by the sense that, oh crap, I think they're getting lost -- which is a real risk in improv.
And so, their uproarious Speech!, which tells of a high school speech team's final competition before graduation, feels like one, coherent piece of storytelling, even when the narrative goes berserk -- which happens almost immediately, with the death of a teammate after a bee sting. It's not enough that the teammate (played by Bozic) dies without any real assistance; his teacher (played by Fotis) is such a wreck of a man that he can't even help with an EpiPen (someone else does, causing Fotis to declare "I saved him!"). When the boy dies anyway, his Vietnam vet bus driver (also played by Bozic) instantly offers to bury the body in the woods.
And so it goes, lunatic tale after lunatic tale, including competing girls, played by Madde Gibba and Taj Ruler, whose viciously competitive edge at reading over-earnest poetry is laced with completely unconscious gestures of friendship. There's also the story of a dramatic monologue performer (Erin Sheppard) who has lost her partner -- to a bee sting -- and so must compete with an ill-prepared hockey player (Matt Spring); the joke is that their story is indistinguishable from the plot of the maudlin 1988 film, The Cutting Edge. And, finally, you have the story of a dazzlingly confident extemporaneous debater (Tim Hellendrung), whose talent for rhetoric apparently stems from his teenage alcoholism. When called on to debate exactly that topic, he launches into a spectacular, utterly sodden defense of teen drinking that is very nearly convincing.
However, even with all this, Fotis and Bozic manage to save many of the best moments for themselves. In the play's most astonishing scene, they play foreign exchange students who have mistaken Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" routine for dramatic dialogue; they manage to make even that old chestnut, now a tired cliche of comedy, funny again -- something I would have thought impossible.
Related performance details:
Speech!, presented by Ferrarri McSpeedy, is on stage at the U of M Rarig Center Thrust in Minneapolis. Remaining shows: August 12 (5:30 pm), 13 (10 pm), 14 (7 pm)
Check back regularly throughout the Fringe Festival for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics
About the author: Max Sparber is a playwright and journalist, as well as being a member of the unforgivably rude cult band The Dirty Curls. His work as a playwright can be read at http://www.maxsparberplays.com/.