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STAGE REVIEW : Battle of the Laughs : Community College Thespians Act Up in Improvisational Sport of Full Contact Theater

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like Jimmy Connors and George Foreman on the comeback trail, Damon Hill felt the pressure of being the grand old man of his sport.

At 31, he had more than a decade on most of the other players, and when the starting whistle blew Saturday night at Orange Coast College, Hill said he knew in his gut that he had “something to prove.”

Hill had to win more than points; had to earn more than respect. In “Full Contact Theater,” the old-timer realized, he had to make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh.

Those immortal words of Comden and Green were no doubt in all competitors’ minds as they prepared for the grueling event sometimes called “sports theater.” In OCC’s version, teams of improvisational actors were to battle it out in a series of rounds for points awarded by exacting judges and an often rowdy audience. A player who could spur the crowd to buckled-over guffaws was rewarded with the honks of a Harpo Marx look-alike’s horn; anyone who violated the G-rated code of content quickly found himself silenced with that most opprobrious of punishments, a paper bag over the head.

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At this normally placid suburban campus Saturday night, nearly 200 fans packed the stands of the Drama Lab Studio to the see the face off between two squads of nine thespians each: Hill’s team, the Punishers, against those outlaws of community-college theater, Road Kill.

Cheerleaders for the two teams whipped up enthusiasm as the players took the stage, each bedecked in a different form of head gear. Symbolizing the halls of learning that surround the studio, competitors wore aviator goggles, Spanish morions and moose antlers to show their respect for the k-word: knowledge. Judges, one in the wig and gown of a British lord, took seats in the front row, and a young woman who went unidentified, her slinky dress more than appropriate for game-show tile-turning, prepared to keep score.

Officials then asked the audience to stand for the national anthem. Peanut vendors stilled their pitches as questions emerged over which anthem to sing. In a spirit of compromise, Alex Golson, the instructor officiating over the event, chose the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, distinguished by the fact that no one present knew the lyrics.

After that cacophonous but well-intended gesture toward Franco-American understanding, Golson blew his whistle, and full contact theater returned at last to its Costa Mesa home.

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The first event, called “novel,” seemed like it would set the pace for the rest of the game. Given the audience-suggested genre of Gothic romance, players had to improvise lines of narrative and dialogue from a popular novel. Competitors who couldn’t come up with clever enough lines were ejected from the event. At the end of the round, with nonsequiturs far outnumbering actual jokes, Road Kill had emerged as the audience darling for audacity and the judge’s favorite for cleverness.

Then came the “celebrity” sketch, in which a player had to guess what famous person or character he was by the way teammates treated him. It was another astounding Road Kill victory, and it seemed as if it was all over but the encore.

“We had such a head start, we got a little soft,” Road Kill’s C. C. Celba, 20, would later reflect after watching his team’s lead slip away over the course of the evening.

When it was all over, the teams had performed their sketches forward and backward, broken into song on a moment’s notice and created impromptu foreign film scenes on stage. The Punishers--its members distinguished by a weeping clown silk-screened on the back of their jerseys--took the high ground, while Road Kill--each uniform decorated with a tire tread--grew ever more outrageous, landing several penalties along the way. The score would say it all: Punishers 77, Road Kill 75.

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Hill, the Punishers’ captain, beamed with pride. His team had lost last year, “but this time, we reached out and grabbed that big brass ring.” Road Kill, he said, was particularly tough to beat in the audience scoring because of the good looks and charisma of its players.

“They have the physical beauty, but we have the talent,” he said. “And talent will out.” Predicting Road Kill’s reaction, Hill cautioned, “they have a reputation for being sore losers.”

Road Kill, for its part, had a different spin on the results.

“The officiating was way (off),” said player Mark Coyan, 23, using a word that would have cost him a point in the competition. Concurred Julie Ackerman, 23: “We had it all the way, but the judges hated us.”

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Unaware of the locker-room recriminations, spectators said they were happy just to have been a part of it all. Though pleased with the collegiate-level sport, some even hoped to someday see professional-caliber competition.

“This was great,” said Andrew Bub, 20. “Next time, though, I’d like to see Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters go at it.”

* “Full Contact Theater” will present a rematch of Road Kill vs. Punishers, a student improvisational show, Saturday at 8 p.m. at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Admission: $5. Information: (714) 432-5880.


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