Are some things better the second time around?
That might not be the best question to ask about the Bunker 13 show in the College of Charleston's Stelle Di Domani series for Piccolo, but it's probably the first one many local theater fans will ask. Because if the title sounds familiar, that's likely because you remember this same show from the 2010 series.
Maybe a better question might be how an "improvised play" with the same actors playing the same parts off and on for five years changes over time.
Here's the Bunker 13 concept: Five American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam war come in from the boonies to rest and refit in their garrison bunker. Then they talk. That doesn't change from night to night, but exactly what they talk about is improvised based on suggestions from the audience. Typically the actors take those suggestions in the form of "postcards from home" that theater-goers write to the actors before the show. After about 40 minutes of improvised dialogue, there's an intermission, and then the actors return for a second act.
With two acts and up to 90 minutes of performance time, Bunker 13 stretches the limits of long-form improv to the point that CofC alumni Steve Lange sometimes questions whether the term truly applies. Unlike most long-form improv shows, there are costumes, props, and set dressing, and while the dialogue and storylines change from night to night, "it's not a bunch of guys in black T-shirts and jeans," Lange says. "When we go to improv festivals, it's weird that we have costumes."
Lange grew up in Ohio and graduated from the College with a degree in theater performance in 1999. He wound up in Seattle after a stop in Chicago, and joined up with the Jet City Improv Troupe, which he thought was adventurous even by Second City standards. That's how he met Mike Christensen, the former soldier who originated Bunker 13. And while Lange's dour "Joker" character is one of just five denizens of the bunker, he's particularly significant to this performance as the alumni link that qualifies the show for Stelle Di Domani.
Todd McNerney, the chairman of the College's theater department and its point man for the series, said that he might not have invited a traditional play back for a second run like this. But with an improvised play, he says, he's interested to see how the performance, creation, and interaction has changed since 2010. The improv-play form has become popular on the West Coast over the past decade, he says, but what particularly attracts him to Bunker 13 is that the improv itself is not simply comedic. "As a teacher of acting, I use improv ... in a lot of ways," he says. "It's exciting to me to see people think about improv as more than [just a way of] being clever."
The same cast has been doing Bunker 13 off and on since 2009 now, and though they all do other acts at Jet City, they've so incorporated their Bunker characters into their daily lives now that they routinely refer to each other by their soldier names in social settings. Lange thinks that drilled understanding of each character — as well as their now-instinctive knowledge of each other as actors — gives the comedy and drama in their more recent performances a greater depth and possibility than their early shows. The dark humor of exhausted soldiers arises from a particularly kind of intimacy, and at this point in the show's history, that feeling of lived-in connection between the characters comes naturally.
"[The great performances] don't always happen," Lange says. "But it's like a basketball team now. I basically know when Sarge is going to pass to me."
Piccolo Spoleto: Stelle di Domani. Bunker 13. May 30 at 7:30 p.m. May 31 at 7 p.m. June 1 at 9 p.m. June 2 at 3 p.m. 1 hour, 30 min. $16, $13/seniors, students. Theatre 220, Simons Center, 54 St. Philip St.