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Return of the Village Idiots : The improv group, known for its off-the-wall material, is back at the West End Playhouse.

July 09, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times

The Idiots are back.

"It's our triumphant return," announces Village Idiots founder Bill Ackerman. Tonight, the 1 1/2- year-old, eight-member improv group does indeed return to the West End Playhouse, where they'd originally begun a successful run last summer (decamping in March for a three-month stint at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica), and are now scheduled for an indefinite stay.

Pure improv is the group's trademark--although they plan to begin adding sketch comedy in the near future--and a grab-bag of traditional theater games.

"We do one called 'The Pick-Up Artist,' " says Ackerman, a Chicago native, "in which the audience suggests the pickup line, the environment and who's doing the initiating. In another piece, 'Tabloids,' we read a selection of headlines from the Weekly World News, and the audience chooses which headline they'd like to see us do--things like 'Childless Couple Gives Birth to Dog Boy' or 'Martians Kidnaped My Wife on Our Wedding Day and She's Never Been the Same.' "

Though the material is often off the wall, Ackerman notes that it's rarely off-color. "We're never gross or disgusting," says the actor, who has a master of fine arts degree from UC Irvine, is a Groundlings alumnus, and teaches acting and test-preparation at UCLA Extension. His wife, Michele, is the group's producer; they have two children.

"We try to maintain a high standard: reach as many people--and offend as few--as possible," he says. "It's easy to be obscene and dirty, but we try to play against that."

Since their work is entirely improvisational, "we don't have to pay any rights to playwrights," he says, "so we can keep the prices low, try to get as many people into the theater as we can."

The plan seems to be working: The company has developed a loyal following, from college-age to mature theatergoers. "The audiences," Ackerman says, "have been as diverse as any I've faced.

"Often, we don't know what we're facing till we come out and start the first piece," he adds. "It can be very exciting."

Group members have their roots in a variety of improv backgrounds--including "Specific Hospital" and Mice.

Company member Stanley Sheff directed Ackerman in 1990's "Lobster Man From Mars" ("In my opinion," Sheff declares, "the finest science-fiction film made about lobster men") and, although not a professional actor, he got plenty of improv experience 10 years ago as the second half of the Sunday-night radio program "The Young Marquis and Stanley Show," which aired locally on KROQ.

The Village Idiots first came together in February, 1992, when Ackerman assembled a workshop performance group at the Improv's annex. "It was a weird, eclectic group of people," he says, "which all improv groups strive to be." Now, the company returns monthly to the Annex, and has been performing Wednesdays at the Upfront Comedy Showcase in Santa Monica.

At the West End, Ackerman reminds, "Tickets are only $6.99. At $7, we'd be a bargain."

Where and When What: Village Idiots. Location: West End Playhouse, 7446 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys. Hours: 8:30 p.m. Fridays. Indefinitely. Price: $6.99. Call: (818) 904-0444.

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