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Fourth annual Improv-A-Thon keeps the laughter coming

Weekend of Whoopee

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The math is simple: 15 groups, two nights, 10 hours, and your choice of laying down a Lincoln for a single show or a Jackson for a full pass so you can savor the whole enchilada.

Improv-A-Thon, as Theatre 99 fans know, is the long-running warm-up/fundraiser for Charleston Comedy Festival (Jan. 20-23, 2010). Sure, we can fill our bellies with juicy improv goodies all year long at T99, but think of this as the big Thanksgiving feast of funniness that opens the guffaw-giving season — the time of year when we can stuff ourselves with snorts and chortles, take a nap, and come back later to slap some leftover laughs between two slices of bread and kick back with a beer.

This year's extravaganza will include three acts from Atlanta, including two performing here for the very first time, as well as local T99 fan favorites such as Fighting Gnomes, which is made up of current Charleston County School of the Arts students, and Cats Hugging Cats.

"Fighting Gnomes is great. School of the Arts consistently brings the talent," says Theatre 99's Greg Tavares. "And Cats Hugging Cats is a powerhouse of an act. In fact, it's a meow-erhouse of an act."

That's an apt description: the five-person Cats Hugging Cats features Tavares, who, if Charleston comedy had royalty, would have a hereditary title by now, as well as jocular juggernauts Anne Bowen, Brian De Costa, Jason Groce, and Andy Livengood. Cats, long-form improv with a healthy sprinkle of absurdity, is an exercise in finding comedy in the commonplace. The point is that they do it exceedingly well.

"But we're especially excited about bringing in the shows that are brand new to Theatre 99, like Village Theatre and Empty Suits. These are the really special treats," Tavares says.

Atlanta-based Village Theatre bills itself as "the people you see every day, only funnier," while the Empty Suits are a group of incredibly good-looking people who are likely to be more than a little bit chuckle-licious themselves.

Treats will abound at Improv-a-Thon, including performances by Three Men and a Little Lady, Outside Looking In, and The Have Nots! When sizzlers with names like Hot Pants and Full Love Throttle (a Sullivan and Tavares two-person act that really showcases the heart and soul of T99) take the stage to make the audience give up the guffaws, you have to be at least curious. In fact, half the fun of a festival like this is just looking at the names of the acts and wondering how and why people came up with them.

"In a comedy festival, so much comes down to the name," Tavares says. "It could be a brilliant piece, but they call it 'L'âne du Chat,' and you're like, 'Damn, man!'" For those of you without a French background, that's "Ass of the Cat."

There's a little bit of everything at the Improv-A-Thon. For those who prefer comedy with a PBR-and-pork-rinds flavor, Neckprov will be delivering their signature redneck rumpus. Those of a more scholarly bent may well ponder whether the energy of Einstein Meets Elvis really is equal to the mass of Vegas-era Elvis times the speed of light squared. And for those who can't get enough of the 45 T99 company members who tickle our funny bones all year long, there will be a T99 ensemble performance.

"That's the really great thing about seeing the local acts," Sullivan says. "These are the people that you know, that live in your town. It really builds that sense of being part of a community."

Tavares says, "They work at the tire place, in the grocery store. And you can see them being funny on stage."

"We can really wave the flag a little bit with the local crowd," Sullivan adds. "The company members, improv shows, and the audience really are a community. It's not exclusive at all. If you just want to laugh, hey, you can come on down and laugh for a Lincoln."

Even better, audience members who are itching to get on stage have ample opportunity to do so. T99 offers opportunities to learn the sweet science of improvisational comedy throughout the year. Savvy students can rise through the ranks to become company members.

In fact, most of the folks performing in the acts and ensemble pieces throughout the festival have done exactly that, either at T99 or similar theaters.

If seeing these individual acts wasn't incentive enough, consider this: the all-star jam sessions at the end of both nights will feature performers from all of the acts. The jams promise to be true one-of-a-kind performances that will sum up the whole shebang.

"These are really moment-in-time things," Tavares says. "Because when are all of these acts going to be together again? You not only get to see the individual acts, but you also get to see them do something completely new at the end."

With acts popping up on stage one after another on both evenings, comedy connoisseurs will be able to settle into a seat and revel for hours on end. Okay, occasional trips to the restroom between performances might be recommended, but even so.

"Something like this really has a dance marathon feel to it," Tavares says. "And by the end of a really long dance marathon, you hope you're actually still dancing, you know? Not just standing there kind of wobbling in place."

Improv-a-Thon Schedule

Fri. Nov. 13

7 p.m. E is for Ediots

7:40 p.m. Three Men and a Little Lady

8:20 p.m. Full Love Throttle

9 p.m. Cats Hugging Cats

9:40 p.m. Einstein Meets Elvis (Atlanta)

10:20 p.m. T99 Ensemble

11:00 p.m. All-Star Jam

Sat. Nov. 14

6 p.m. The Fighting Gnomes

6:40 p.m. Outside Looking In

7:20 p.m. Hot Pants

8 p.m. The Have Nots! Comedy Improv Company

8:55 p.m. Village Theatre (Atlanta)

9:35 p.m. Neckprov

10:15 p.m. Empty Suits (Atlanta)

10:55 p.m. All-Star Jam

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