Review: Risen by The Institution Theatre
by Michael Meigs

The CTXLT beat is narrative theatre, locally produced, involving the delivery of a set text.  That's an arbitrary rule -- got to focus our efforts somewhere, right? -- articulated most recently in the revised About page published last month.  My throwaway comment was, "So, no improv, even though that art form can be thrilling, comic and suspenseful."

Sarah-Marie Curry responded with an invitation to attend the Institution Theatre's Risen - Improvised Stories in World War Z, running each Saturday evening at 8 p.m. through November 1.  Risen has a hybrid format: an Austin actor delivers a ten-minute monologue to establish the mood and set the locale, a place somewhere in the world under attack from the Zombie armies imagined in Max Brooks's novel World War Z.  A team of improvisers then takes on the story.

The Institution Theatre is off the Austin theatre world's beaten path, all the more so since the Austin Playhouse got priced out of its rented digs at Penn Field a couple of years ago.  Founders have converted a warehouse structure behind South Congress condos south of Opal Divine's and the Exposé gentleman's club.  I arrived to find the theatre parking lot full.  Few of the sixty or so closely ranked seats in the theatre were vacant ten minutes before curtain time, but I was lucky enough to snag one on the aisle.  Those coming later than me were accommodated in friendly fashion.  Audience members shifted about to liberate seats for couples to sit together, while others settled on the benches along the entry aisle.  A friendly buzz filled the dimly lit theatre.

Lights went down and we glimpsed someone seating himself in center stage.  Guest monologist Benjamin Nathaniel Scott appeared in the persona of a poor man from the South African countryside who'd migrated with his family to the townships in search of work.  In a sober voice Scott told us of the hardships there and of the sudden confusion caused by the inexplicable attack by some unknown force.  He spoke emphatically and authoritatively, a voice of reason describing a world irrationally coming apart.  And then he was gone.

The story arc of World War Z was all but inevitable.  After all, when you're dealing with zombies, sooner or later you're going to wind up dead.  The performers were intent men and women in their twenties.  They appeared to have assigned the roles ahead of time -- a wounded young man and his  fiancée, bewildered and buffeted by the chaos; a do-gooder young man apparently from the United States and his alienated wife, angry at having had to accompany him there; a single mom, her new boyfriend and her resentful teenage son; a nurse from a hospital flooded with zombie victims, overwhelmed by the horror of it all. [Note: I later discovered that the cast had made the roles up in the course of performance -- evidence of their quick wit and commitment!]

This wasn't really South Africa.  For one, Scott was visibly not an African; for another, none of the cast members appeared to know much about the place except that it was really poor. Future iterations for other parts of the globe will probably be equally weakly sourced.

The lack of a set script was evident but was simply irrelevant to what was occurring simultaneously on stage and in the audience space.  Emotion was what counted.  Although the players were sometimes at a loss for words, virtually every scene provided participants the opportunity to manifest intense feeling. The horror of zombie attack hovered all about, but each participant stood fearlessly to react to immediate conflict, confusion or distress.  For long moments the plot failed to move forward.  The audience was adamantly supportive throughout, and spectators applauded the conclusion of almost every scene.

A curious anonymity covered the cast, and there was no program.  We in the audience were free to project ourselves into those emotional moments -- sharing the intensity of the doomed couple as they promised one another a wedding, appreciating  the unease of the boyfriend tasked with becoming a surrogate father to a complaining teen, understanding the tense standoff between good intentions and desires to flee.  Little eloquence characterized any of this, but the stage was awash in earnestly expressed feeling.

The plot of Risen was blurred  by the lack of supernumerary zombies.  Cast members donned masks offstage and tottered across the stage as invading zombies, then later reappeared as their not-yet-zombied selves, only eventually to be tainted, destroyed and resurrected with those same masks.

What counted was the shared experience and the happy acknowledgement of impending doom.  I had the impression that the Institution audience deeply appreciated the cheap thrill of that predictable story line.

I liked it a lot and I enjoyed it.  Risen manifests the thrill of theatre's shared communal experience. The art form of improvisation suggests that any of us, even the most inhibited, can be exalted by the power of mimesis.  The sense of the binding power of shared emotion was strongly present, and as a result, each of the individuals standing up there in front of us in imaginary Zombie world was vivid and attractive.

Maybe the Zombies aren't after us yet.  But we can still thrill at the prospect that old man Death is licking his empty chops at us.

Institution Theatre

September 06 - November 01, 2014
The Institution Theater
3708 Woodbury Drive
Austin, TX, 78704

Saturdays at 8PM, September 6 - November 1
$12 (only $5 on September 20)