Walking into Otherworld Theatre on Clark Street is actually a bit like stepping into another world, one that celebrates all things nerdy. Incense pervades the atmosphere. Interesting lamps and knickknacks are everywhere, along with evocations of and memorabilia from Star Wars, Harry Potter (look for Hedwig roosting high in the rafters), Dr. Who, and many other fandoms. (Yes, there is a Tardis, and, yes, it’s bigger on the inside.) You’d probably need hours to catalogue every item on display, but it would be fun. However, the visual homage to science fiction and fantasy—as compelling as it is—is not the main feature here. Nor is the bar featuring an eclectic selection of soft drinks, beer, wine, and original themed cocktails. As great as these are, the reason you walk in is one of the two performance spaces, the Bradbury Theater—which will be hosting an immersive, futuristic murder mystery beginning on March 25—and The Alchemists’ Lab, home of Chicago’s newest improv troupe, PortalProv! (Yes, the exclamation point is in the name.)
It’s always fun to watch the birth of a new improv troupe, though the nature of the medium is that they take some time before performers become seasoned and the troupe gels. Even after that happens, improv comedy can be uneven. (This is no less true at the established venues like Second City than it is here.) But PortalProv! may well have a ready-made fanbase: it is aiming at the large number of Chicagoans who proudly proclaim themselves to be nerds or geeks and who make up the fandoms of those intellectual properties that can be seen in the lobby displays…and there are many, many such fans who are willing to spend money to find entertainment related to their favorite stories, characters, and adventures. Ask the people who run things like ComicCon: it’s never a bad bet to play to the interests of nerds.
PortalProv! improvises shows around the theme of a fandom that was randomly selected the previous week via a spin of a roulette wheel. The opening night show was derived from Jurassic Park; March 20’s show’s topic (selected at the end of this week’s) will be Back to the Future.) Based on the opening night show, this fledgling troupe, while suffering the usual growing pains, is bound to entertain its audiences (who are of course going to be comprised of proud fellow nerds and geeks).
Not every joke lands, of course, but that’s not the point. Improv is raw, unfiltered comedy, and its effectiveness should grow as the troupe gains more experience and learns to trust each other, but it will always be performers on edge trying to tear a laugh out of the ether. The troupe has a rotating cast consisting of “12 of Chicago’s geekiest improv performers”: Jen Connor, Daniel Bloom, Ilsa Morales, Brandon Drap, Nicholas Marino, Grace Trotta, Emma Rose, Megan Conrad, Carlos Rivera, Jono Mammel, Mark Soloff, and Blake Hood. (On opening night, the improvisers were Morales, Drap, Soloff, Trotta, and Marino, with Mammel—wearing a cape and carrying a walking stick capped with an 18-sided gamer’s die—acting as an MC and calling himself the Portal Master.) The “portal” in the troupe’s name is a pandimensional portal allegedly running through the theatre. Each week, the wonky portal will take the troupe through the multiverse and into the world of one of the many fandoms on the wheel.
Director Bryce Read has found quite a fun group of performers. Drap, a wiry, witty, and clever performer, is the everyman of the group (and at one point, based on an audience suggestion, even portrayed the “Final Girl” of the movie trope). Soloff and Marino have set themselves up as the most likely actors to take things in bizarre directions, which is always a fun thing in improv. (Soloff seems to enjoy creating silly puns and isn’t dainty about setting them up; at one point, he improvised the existence of a fast-food joint called Kentucky Fried Rats just so he could make a pun on Chris Pratt’s name: crisp rat. If you like puns, like me, you’ll probably love him.) Morales, a tiny ball of energy and nerdy knowledge, at one point played a velociraptor/golden retriever (you had to be there) as well as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. And Trotta, a talented improviser who needs to learn how to control her omnipresent smile, is a smart actor who portrayed a variety of roles that often helped ground the scenes. Together, prompted by Mammel, they improvised silly moments from the movie as well as unrelated scenes and improv games, most of which had the audience laughing all night long.
Since Otherworld Theatre is a pay-what-you-can venue, there is really no excuse not to venture out some Sunday night and explore the strange new worlds that PortalProv! visits. Information and tickets can be found at https://www.otherworldtheatre.org/portal-prov.