PORTLAND — My last stand at this year’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival came via the world of long-form improv, a tightrope walk that can provide brilliance and failure in heaping helpings. Luckily, we were in the hands of a bunch of masters: Theme Park, the improv group that features Oscar Nunez of The Office, Michael Hitchcock (Best In Show, United States of Tara), and Janet Varney (Dinner & A Movie, Burning Love).
But before we got to them, we had to go through a local group, the Curious Comedy Players. Named after the theater where they perform on a regular basis, the sextet of comedic minds perfectly exemplified how difficult it is to make up material on the fly and, of all things, make it funny. Bouncing off the suggestion of the word “portfolio,” the group took a while to settle into a groove, with a long opening stretch that seemed lost. But when they did lock in, they were brilliant, particularly in the closing part of their set that began with two soldiers in the world’s smallest foxhole and ended with all six members of the troupe in a huge twisted mass on the stage.
Theme Park, on the other hand, took no time to find their sea legs. The group was aided ably by guest monologist Natasha Leggero, who relayed some hilarious anecdotes about accidentally revealing to a scary biker that her brother was sleeping with the biker’s wife and her weird and dark relationship with an Australian con artist. It took, as you would expect, alternately surreal and ridiculous turns that included Varney straddling Hitchcock on the stage in a bizarre marriage counseling/wrestling session, the firing and rehiring of an old prospector turned manservant, and a male prostitute with an eye for interior design and loose bowels.
There were, of course, times when they struggled with bits of their own design, but that’s both the nature of improvisation and the fact that everyone – and I mean everyone – was reaching the end of their physical and mental tether on this last day of the festival. Outside the venue where the comics assembled before taking off, you could see the sleep-deprived, haunted look in their eyes, which was matched by every attendee with a wristband.
But the lack of sleep and lingering hangovers were absolutely worth it. For four days, Portland was the center of the comedy universe and its residents responded by coming out in droves. And even though some heckles were thrown and weirdness happened, the performers were visibly thrilled by the outpouring of support. Or as co-founder and comedian Matt Braunger put it on his Twitter feed: “Thanks, Portland! You made #bridgetowncomedyfest great. I love you. Let’s never quit making it great. Also, beer and weed. But mostly funny.”