2018 Next Stage Theatre Festival Review: The Harold Experience (The Assembly)

Of course, the first thing that happened in the performance of The Harold Experience, an improvised comedy show based on true stories from the lives of audience members, playing as part of the 2018 Next Stage Festival (a sort of post-graduate Fringe experience, in theory) was director Rob Norman walking cheerfully down stage and explaining a) that he was not called Harold and b) what a Harold could possibly be. The audience mostly laughed appreciatively at his description, but I fear that we gave the cast the wrong impression about our values.

After fishing in the audience for some related themes, the title of the show turned out to be “Touching.” This immediately set up the potential for amusing double-entendre and gave the players an interesting place to go, but I regret that I just never felt like they got there. The initial beats of the Harold, where the scenes are established, felt off in some way. The actors were clearly playing mostly for laughs, and while that’s okay in theory it sometimes means that there’s more attention on a sharp quip than on advancing the scene. New pieces of information felt slow to arrive, and a few times I sagged in my seat with impatience while watching. This Harold never felt like it gelled.

As a Harold continues, the plot lines are supposed to twine together. This tends to be where things get very fast and, if the piece is done well, the most interesting. In this case, I found it merely the most uneven. On the one hand was Paloma Nunez, who had a thread about first times that was simultaneously well-acted and well-conceived. It deepened as it developed and she’s a generous and clever improviser. On the other hand, a long and very peculiar first scene about receipts (?) just made me feel tired. There seemed an unusual amount of not-listening and not-checking in as the scenes developed.

Musical director and pianist Ayaka Kinugawa scored the onstage action to the best of her ability, but that too was challenging. Her musicianship is great and she’s obviously sensitive to what’s happening onstage. That said, sometimes the music would stop abruptly as some absurdist turn of scene made it suddenly mismatched with the mood – it didn’t seem like the actors were quite listening to her either.

The great thing about improv is that it’s different every night. This could have been opening-night kittens, or there could have been a new person added late to the group who threw off some key balance (several actors listed on the website weren’t in the show I saw, so that could be it). It is also true, in the world of improvisation, that sometimes a night gets weird early and just … stays weird. But, even though I am typically a big improv fan, The Harold Experience I had Wednesday night mostly didn’t work for me. Maybe the later versions will work better.

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Photo of Adam Cawley, Ashley Botting, Becky Johnson, Matt Folliott, and Ken Hall by Peter Stelmach

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