Disclaimer: The author of this review has worked with the creators of this production on various other projects. She maintains a keen interest in their improv work and follows them closely.
Adventurous music blasts through the speakers as the audience takes their seats in the MCL theater (think Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, etc). It sets the tone before we embark on our own adventure with the cast of TIS! A DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS IMPROV. Three characters - a gnome, a half-elf, and a tiefling - aided by their two trusty dungeon masters bring this classic role-playing game to life.
TIS!’s Unique Take on Dungeons and Dragons
TIS! is designed to be like a dungeons and dragons (D&D) game - established characters in a fantasy world with dungeon masters leading us through a continuous campaign. It also embraces the innate improvisational aspect of the game by having the outcome of their actions dictated by a roll of the dice.
Here in their third season, TIS! has gotten better at adhering to the rules of D&D and honed in on telling a story from start to finish with long-form improv. Taking these concepts and guidelines, our campaign comes to life with an introduction to our troupe:
Noah Hart as Clintonius (don’t call him Clint) Bartonum - a half elf with a nine foot owl companion.
Nick Castellanos as Gordon Ramsay (pronounced Gor-DON Ram-SAY) - a gnome with a penchant for sarcasm.
Kaelea Rovinsky as Rancor Tenebrius - a tiefling (a human with demonic ancestry) who is just trying to be a better humanoid.
And finally, we have Ian McCulloch and Rob Kelsey as dungeon masters.
The Twists and Turns of the Journey
Each chapter of TIS! will be different than the last as the adventure starts with a suggestion from the audience. At this particular show, guest star James Keating, emerges as the Beer King ruling over his land of penguin subjects. He joins our adventurers as they must find the Great Wine Witch of the West and stop her from terrorizing his penguin hospital. Dungeon Master and show creator, Ian McCulloch steps in with his gold sequined jacket and keen ability to quickly paint the scene we’re in as we journey with the brigade.
When they enter a new destination and meet new characters, it can take the cast a while to find a direction everyone will jump on board with. Some scenes feel a bit tense as they fumble over who is in control of the scene and the group tries to see what sticks. We wait anxiously to see if they can work it out.
However, the group shines when they hit their stride. They are absolutely hilarious riffing off of and supporting each other as they grow the situation. One second they’ll be facing off against the Wine Witch and the next suddenly it’s grown into proclamations of love and feminism!
When they find something that works, the scenes they create are fantastic to watch as they let their imaginations go wild - more characters are added (played by McCulloch and sometimes Costellanos), emotions become heightened, and we find ourselves excited to see what will come next.
Not Your Ordinary Improv
One aspect of this show that differs from other improv is Rob Kelsey’s role as the “referee” dungeon master. Most improv training will tell you to keep saying “yes and” in order to move the scene forward. However, Kelsey plays the “no but” to keep our cast on track with their mission by rolling the dice to see how our characters’ actions work out. His deadpan expression is the perfect balance to the craziness happening on stage.
Another part of TIS! that doesn’t strictly adhere to the rules of improv is them breaking character. Sure, not breaking character is a skill unto itself and for the most part the cast does maintain their characters. But when you have a dungeon master who isn’t technically in their world and the players have to talk to him, you’re going to end up breaking character anyway. Their own laughter on stage is refreshing. It shows how close this cast is as they still find ways to surprise each other and enjoy acting as an ensemble onstage.
TIS! will appeal to both players and non-players of D&D alike. It captures the essence of the game while also explaining its premise for audience members not familiar with it. It’s not a traditional kind of improv if anyone is looking for some short form comedy sketches that change every few minutes. It’s good for a night full of laughs in a mystical world led by some unforgettable characters.
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