nytheatre.com review by Steven Slate
February 28, 2008
To sum things up (pun intended), Sporknotes tries to cram a whole novel into a 45-minute show. They do this without knowing which novel they'll be playing with until a random audience member suggests one. It's a completely improvised show except for the online study guides read by a narrator and used to guide the show.
Now obviously, they don't cram a whole novel into 45 minutes, but they use that novel to guide their scenes and move the show forward. What I found most enjoyable was the opening: after the cast gets the suggestion, they proceed to play a panel of literary experts discussing the book and any other topics that may be inspired by it. The piece then moves on when the narrator breaks in with a summary of the book. After that point the show is guided along by quick one- or two-sentence chapter summaries every few minutes.
The novel chosen by the audience on the night I went was Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, a complex satire of the Stalin regime that features Satan's visit to Moscow and a book within a book about Pontius Pilate among other things. The Pontius Pilate storyline was used heavily in this show. As you can imagine, all of this proved to be great fodder for improv scenes.
Overall the improvisation was very jokey and there were times when some of the players undermined whole scenes with behavior that tried too hard to be funny. Fortunately enough, there are a few very smart improvisers in this group who deftly wove themes from the Sparknotes and the opening discussions together in a way that gave the show some value. To be honest, I had a tough time with this show, but the audience ate it up. Big strong laughs continued throughout this show, and that's probably reason enough to go see it. There are some very talented players in this group and I'd love to see more of them; if I caught the show on another night I'm sure it might hit me differently.