Fishin' Magicians

Not only was the Chicago-bred comedy Bassprov one of the best shows to hit an Orlando stage all last year, it contained one of the most flawlessly realized lines of dialogue one could hope to encounter in any medium.

It came in the midst of a leisurely exchange between Midwestern good ol' boys Donny Weaver (Mark Sutton) and Earl Hinkle (Joe Bill), two pals out for a day of bass fishin' and beer drinkin' on Donny's boat. Earl was discussing the troubling addiction his missus had begun to develop to the writings of John Gray. She had devoured Gray's most famous text, it seemed, and in it divined the problem that was plaguing their own relationship: Earl was from Mars, while she was from Venus.

"No," Earl remembered having countered, "Our problem is that I'm from workin' hard, and you're from the whorehouse."

What made the line hit like a hammer -- besides its splendidly asymmetrical grammar -- was the knowledge that no one in the world had ever heard it before. Not even Sutton. Bassprov is a completely improvised evening of banter that unfolds according to the barest set of rules. It's always set in Donny's boat. It always stars Sutton and Bill (infrequently joined by another, guest performer for a specially advertised "3 in The Boat" segment). And its two protagonists are always engaged in the simultaneous activities of fishing for bass and verbally attacking the mysteries of life -- both theirs and everybody's.

Beyond that, the sky's the limit. Wise to an extent their appearance hardly conveys -- Donny has been known to sport a T-shirt proclaiming, "Layeth the Smacketh Down" -- these unlikely raconteurs can discuss the merits of gentlemen's clubs and reference Elizabeth Barrett Browning with equal certitude. Then again, well-rounded characters are a must when you have 50 minutes to fill with nothing more than the words that reside at the top of your head.

It's the ideal job for Bill and Sutton, improvisers with 40 years' worth of performing and teaching experience between them. Like the characters they have devised, the Bassprov partners met in college (Indiana University at Bloomington -- as opposed to Donny and Earl's alma mater, Monroe County Community College). After graduation, they relocated to Chicago and co-founded the Annoyance Theater, a sketch comedy/ improv hybrid that, as Sutton recalls, "used improv as a tool to write full-length plays." One such product, "Coed Prison Sluts," ran for 11 years, becoming the longest-lived musical in the city's history.

During one of Annoyance's late-night revues, Sutton and Bill performed an impromptu bit about two verbose fishing buddies. The routine was a hit, and it inspired a stand-alone show that has since become popular enough to log 25 to 30 performances per year in Chicago (not to mention extensive touring).

"I think what `audiences` respond to is that these guys are regular guys," Sutton says. "They're very Midwestern, and they have that kind of plain sensibility. But they're not stupid. They're very well-read and educated. Also, `they're` genuinely likable, and everything we talk about -- even though people might not agree with it -- they can see the reality of it for us."

Too much reality, sometimes. At last year's "Foolfest" comedy festival at SAK Comedy Lab, the audiences that turned out for Bassprov's two performances got so caught up in the show's verisimilitude that they instinctively reared back in fear every time Sutton or Bill mimed casting a line into the crowd/water. Yes, improv is all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. Relievedly, Sutton says the reaction is not unique to Central Florida.

A return engagement at this week's third "Foolfest" will allow us locals to delve deeper into the character framework established by the Bassprov team. Donny, his creator says, tends to be slightly more sentimental and emotional, while Earl is "a little more hard-bitten and world-weary." (See whorehouse comment.) Last year, both fellas showed a penchant for dissecting the teachings of Dr. Phil, but that element of the franchise has largely receded.

"He's become so popular `that` we've kind of turned his back on him a bit," Sutton assesses.

Years ago, when they were still hashing out the act, Sutton and Bill were thinking of ways to keep it interesting. At one point, they mulled the idea of having Donny or Earl occasionally leave the confines of the "boat" to act out a monologue being recited by the other. But they eventually nixed the idea as unworkable, settling instead for a minimalist approach that, as Sutton states it, could be the unofficial credo of the entire Bassprov experience:

"You know what? We're going to sit in this damn boat and we're just going to see what happens."

A lot, as it turns out.

Pass the brewski.


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