This weekend at the PCA: 20th century American music, improv comedy
By Lou Fancher
Visitors to the Piedmont Center for the Arts April 29 and 30 can tune into early 20th Century American music with the recently formed Diluvian String Quartet and find the funny in Brian Molyneaux and the Knockabouts improvisational comedy show.
Diluvian’s musicians — Elizabeth Castro Abrams, violin; Jessica Scrimale, violin; Raphael Gold, viola; and Sylvia Woodmansee, cello — bring a collective firehouse of fresh talent to a concert entitled An American Dream. Cast as “an intimate evening of music while surrounded by local art,” the quartets’ original plans for a March 2020 concert were cancelled by COVID. The celebratory debut performance in Piedmont features “Quartet No. 1” by Heitor Villa-Lobos, “Five Pieces for String Quartet” by Erwin Schulhoff, and Antonin Dvořák‘s “String Quartet No. 12 in F Major (“The American”).
It is common to draw references and rhythms relating to jazz, tango, and folk music in the three composers’ works. Influence from these genres prevailed — and revolutionized — strictly observed classical music boundaries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dvořák’s popular 12th string quartet, composed in 1893, bore the imprint of his life after moving to the United States from his Czech homeland. The work’s simple, accessible melodic structures find their roots in African American spirituals, according to archival notes and letters left by the composer.
The following night, Molyneaux and his versatile, agile troupe of friends showcase their quick and remarkably clever skill set that comes from experience. Molyneaux trained at The Second City in Chicago and, along with other work on the theatrical stage, also has a career as a commercial photographer. In a bio on his company website that he boasts of writing himself, Molyneaux says “improv and waiting tables are the two things that taught [him] persistence, adaptability, and patience while wearing many hats.” Among the “many hats” — he is the father of two daughters and proud “Piedmont dad.”
Along with Molyneaux, the performance features a quintet of artists well-versed in improv. Sometimes referred to as “The Improviser’s Improviser,” Joe Liss served as a writer and performing member of The Second City in Chicago. He has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Strangers With Candy, and in Home Alone 2. Liss has written for network and online shows including Disney’s Kick Buttowski Suburban Daredevil and SpongeBob Squarepants. Oakland resident Shannon Little studied improv at Morpho Theater, Leela, and the Comedy Spot in Sacramento. Jessica Davenport has been performing improv since 2008 in appearances in Oakland and Sacramento. She has performed with Unlikely Animals, Urge to Rumble, Holy Rollers, Four Score, Mondo Bondo, NPL Players, and The Davengers and was a member of Leela Improv Theatre’s first musical improv ensemble, Major Sixth. Michael Davenport has performed at The Second City, Improv Olympic, and The Annoyance Theater in Chicago. Davenport is the founder and Artistic Director of Morpho Theater in Oakland. Lisa Martinovic came to improv as writer often seen on the poetry slam circuit during the 1990s. She has performed with Magic Jester, Oaktown, and Morpho.
One of the terrific pleasures of improv comedy is how performers weave input from the audience into the show. Without guaranteeing this approach, a sure bet says this weekend’s interaction and exchange with a live audience will feed the team’s energy and fuel the exploratory improvisation that tickles funny bones with surprising candor and generates spontaneous laughter.