Show and tell
The Utility Players
Reno, NV 89512
“I had the idea for the name The Utility Players,” says Jessica Levity, the founder of that local comedy troupe. “A utility player is someone who’s …” She hesitates for a just a second, trying to come up with the right word, which is just enough time for her cohorts to begin shouting out quickfire madlib suggestions:
Levity cracks up. In addition to being a producer, writer, and host for the troupe, she also plays the role of the late, great Ed McMahon, the show’s living laugh track. After regaining her composure, she finishes her thought: “A utility player is someone who’s competent in multiple positions.”
The Utility Players are required to be equally adept at sketch comedy, improvisation, dance, music, traditional theater, stage management, crew work and whatever else might be needed.
The Utility Players are the home troupe for The Comedy Cabaret, a weekly two-hour variety show held every Wednesday evening at Studio on 4th. The show features comedy sketches, short-form improvisation games—think Whose Line Is It Anyway?—as well as musical and comedic guest stars.
The troupe has a nice blend of comedic styles. Alyssa Cowan has vibrant, bouncing-off-the-walls comic energy. Joshua Inwood has a long, lean, flailing body—a little reminiscent of a young John Cleese. Shane Tolomeo has a funny wide-eyed look and a soft-spoken delivery. Ian Sorensen has a dry, self-effacing humor—he performs many of the show’s musical interludes, singing, for example, falsetto, a capella versions of Journey songs.
All the performers have different backgrounds—Cowan comes from stand-up comedy, Erin Slimak has traditional theater experience. She’s a wry, witty performer who also serves as the troupe’s director.
The Comedy Cabaret has attracted a group of regulars that comes back for the new performances every week. This dedicated audience allows The Utility Players to perform recurring bits and callbacks to older jokes. The troupe once performed a sketch about the popcorn trick—the old seductive technique of a man hiding a penis surprise at the bottom of a bag of popcorn while on a movie date. Now any mention of popcorn gets an easy laugh.
Though their shows are usually a blend of improvisations and loosely rehearsed sketches—as well as the miniature sketches they call “sketchillas”—their next performance, on July 1 at Studio on 4th, is “Mystery Science on 4th,” a Mystery Science Theater 3000-style roast of the 1987 Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling flick Over the Top. Though a rotating group will riff on the movie, the troupe members are quick to point out that the movie is so cheesy that it doesn’t take much to make it funny.
“This movie kind of riffs on itself,” says Slimak.
The Utility Players use a PowerPoint projection of title cards and other associated images to tie together the themes of each performance. But despite the projection and the preplanned themes, the troupe members reiterate again and again that everything they do is based on improvisation. Recurring bits include a mock news show, and a bit called “Right Now,” where members of the troupe riff on the audience and other things happening right there in the house. Though they estimate that about a third of each show is scripted in advance, they rarely stick to the script. Many of their sketches are just a premise and a conclusion, and it’s left to the performers to fill in the dialogue and details.
“Another thing about being rooted in improv,” says Levity. “There’d be almost no other way to do a weekly show.”