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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: October 16, 2018

What would Stephen King do? Find out at Portland’s new improv theater

Written by: Ray Routhier

Matthew Russell was about 30 minutes into his performance as an evil, supernatural shoe salesman terrifying a small town with footwear that never quits.

While berating other characters, Russell used the word “him” when he should have said “her.” Since it was in the middle of an improv show, other performers pointed out the slip, prompting giggles from the audience.

“I’m an immortal (expletive) being!” shouted Russell. “I don’t care about pronouns.”

The surprising – and hilarious – moment came during a performance of “Improvised Stephen King” at The Fresnel Theater on Free Street in Portland. The new improv theater began hosting performances last week and will feature the Stephen King shows on Fridays through October, as well as on Halloween night.

The theater, started by Russell and his wife, Krista Simonis, also offers improv classes and other shows. A regular feature is the Friday and Saturday performances of ComedySportz, a brand name for competitive improv shows around the country. Teams of performers are given a series of games and skits to compete in, using audience suggestions to make up stuff as they go. The shows are a lot like the long-running TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

Russell had previously run a ComedySportz show in Portland, Oregon, and had been looking, with Simonis, for a location to open their own improv venue. They chose Maine partly because they have family here and partly because of the lack of a dedicated venue for local improv groups to perform. The Comedy Connection had been the focus of Portland’s comedy scene for 20 years, before closing in 2012.

They chose Fresnel for their theater name because it refers to a type of lens used for theater lights and lighthouses.

The ComedySportz shows at The Fresnel Theater, which start at 7 p.m., are kept family-friendly. The late shows, of which “Improvised Stephen King” is one, can be a little more risqué.

On the theater’s opening night, Russell came out to introduce “Improvised Stephen King” and asked audience members to shout some nouns, some verbs and some numbers. From those came the title of the fictitious King novel the troupe would act out: “The Walking.” And various numbers, like 2.1, would come up during the performance as how far or how fast people were walking.

The theater, which seats about 50, is a basement space that used to house a fitness club. The floor is cement, except for the green carpet/stage, and the folding chairs are set up close to the performers.

Russell and the eight other performers – theater and improv veterans from around Maine and New Hampshire – picked numbers at random back stage to see who would be a villain and who would be a hero. Then they came out and stood off to one side of the small stage area – a green carpet just a few feet from the audience – and took turns coming out to perform one or two, or more, at a time.

Performers Meredith Gilfeather and Jennywren Walker came on and started a storyline about a mysterious book returned to the library, a book both seemed to be afraid of. Other characters established that their small town was hosting a big marathon. Wanting the best running/or walking shoes, several went to see Russell’s character at his orthopedics store. Some wanted to run for glory, some wanted to run away from their past.

It soon became clear that the shoes work too well – characters could walk or run forever, but they could not stop.

The show wasn’t meant to be strictly a comedy, and several scenes had a very suspenseful King vibe.

But there were lots of funny moments springing from the fact that everything was made up on the fly. Brian Marshall was the first character to put on the cursed shoes, and he continued to walk practically nonstop for the rest of the show. You never knew what other scene he might come walking through, in a hurry.

When Russell first introduced his evil shoe-seller, it sounded like his last name was Finnegan. But when other characters addressed him as that, he changed it to Flinnegan, and at other times people called him Flanagan, eliciting laughs from the audience.

The show’s plot twist included lost loves, lost children and a book that held everyone’s secrets. In the end, the townsfolk used Netflix as a diversion, and then thwarted Russell’s evil plan with a shadow stored in a jar near some pickled eggs behind a bar. The show lasted about an hour.

The above is not a spoiler, by the way, because each “Improvised Stephen King” will be different, the performers said. The next audience may suggest words that prompt a story about scuba diving in the Bahamas, or some such thing.

Performers said, while preparing the King show, they talked about the types of things often come up in a King novel, like small towns or people with a mysterious past. But in rehearsing for the show, they improvised completely different story lines that never came up in the show itself.

“We didn’t even know who would go on stage with who, we would just walk out and look over and think ‘OK, I’m with you, cool,'” said Marshall.

IMPROVISED STEPHEN KING

WHEN: 9:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26; 8 p.m. on Oct. 31
WHERE: The Fresnel Theater, 17 Free St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $10
INFO: thefresneltheater.org
WHAT ELSE: The theater hosts classes and a variety of improv performances, including ComedySportz shows, which are 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

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