nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 14, 2008
If, like me, you are a Centralia fan of longstanding, then all I need to tell you about their new show Uncle at the PIT is that the boys are back in top form.
If you are new to Centralia, then I will elaborate. Centralia—a trio consisting of Matt Higgins, Jay Rhoderick, and Kevin Scott—have been performing their unique (and I mean unique; honest!) brand of what they call spontaneous theatre for about a decade. I've been watching them make dangerous, raw, hilarious, and smart improv pretty much since they got together (their roots are in the now-legendary-in-some-quarters troupe Burn Manhattan).
A Centralia show starts with the three actors emerging from the darkness in some unexpected manner—generating, literally, a spark of an idea that will fuel the entire hour-long set. In Uncle, the guys are playing with some multimedia effects, so the opening scene happened behind a curtain on which some images had earlier been projected (and later on some live video was incorporated quite seamlessly). This first idea launches the entire program, as Higgins, Rhoderick, and Scott develop one short sketch after the other, and then transition out of one into another, usually pivoting on some wild but utterly valid detail.
They use whatever's at hand, which is not much: a ladder, a few folding chairs, and ultimately the curtain; even two lighting instruments came into play at the show I caught, to be used as a pair of new pupils for Julius Caesar's eyes. (I won't try to explain why Caesar needed new pupils; you had to be there.) The inventiveness with which the props and, indeed, the entire playing space, get used is one of Centralia's hallmarks: the curtain became Caesar's togo and then a baby in swadling clothes and then a (very large) kitchen apron. The ladder was used as a ladder and as a torpedo. A chair became a lawn mower.
The imagination carries over into the transitions between the dozen or so skits they perform in the context of a single show. The closest parallel is Monty Python's Flying Circus at its best: sketches are linked together with a surreal but very genuine internal logic that often defies explanation. And key themes and motifs and even words recur throughout the various pieces that Centralia creates on the fly as the whirl through their show, with everything neatly wrapped up, shockingly tightly, by the time the evening is over.
The humor is situation-driven and never vulgar. At the edition of Uncle I saw, it was less topical than I've seen in the past. The PIT space is more intimate and out-there than other venues I've seen Centralia work in, and I was more aware of Higgins, Rhoderick, and Scott playing with the audience and reveling in each others' unexpected contributions than usual.
Bottom line: Centralia is back, hopefully for many many more visits (they've mostly been inactive in NYC of late). Nobody does spontaneous theatre the way they do it. If you've seen them, you know I'm speaking truth. And if you haven't...well, what are you waiting for?