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BWW Review: UCB Theatre's WE KNOW HOW YOU DIE! at Woolly Mammoth

New York's UCB Theatre, which grew out of a small group of comics you know in the Upright Citizens Brigade, now contains hundreds of performers you don't know putting on scores of different comedies, sketch shows, online shows and all manner of improv shows at what are now a handful of stages.

They've sent squads out for out of town shows before but not for the kind of multi-week residency they have currently at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. We Know How You Die! grows out of an improv premise they've used before - finding one person in the audience to interview and then using every resulting detail in a series of scenes they spontaneously stage, eventually leading to the scene that they project will eventually be the final one for the volunteer.

It begins with the recording of Sia's "Breathe Me," which memorably played as every character in HBO's Six Feet Under died. The ground rules are stated by the four ominously robed actors, who proceed to interview volunteers who are so curious to see their demise they don't mind revealing the most embarrassing details of their lives.

UCB tends to pick someone with the most complicated, detail-filled life story; if you're an actor or worse, another improviser, you're dropped right away. They want to find somebody new with a very different life story.

Opening night, they had a good one, a nuclear physicist who listed bio-hacking and ukulele among his hobbies. Enough grist for a number of very funny scenes.

My reaction to improv sometimes is tension: I feel for these people who have to come up with something off the top of their head. But there are no such worries with these UCB pros, who comfortably and confidently come up with endless invention. I kept wondering whether they relied on some scenes that they could have used in past shows, but couldn't detect any.

This is a solid group of talented people. Shannon O'Neill, who may be the most recognizable figure, took the lead in the interviews. But each of the others - Brandon Scott Jones, Molly Thomas and Connor Ratliff -- were brimming with their own ideas and comic devices.

Following an intermission, the troupe opens it up to the balcony to suggest any words of wisdom they might have been given at some point in their life - the rest of the show riffs off of that, throwing in details from the earlier interview as needed. They probably could have gone on all night.

It's daunting to think each night's show would be completely new, before some audiences whose lives may not be as interesting to share. No worries, though, they'll nail it.

Running time: Approximately 105 minutes including one 15 minute intermission.

Photo credit: Shannon O'Neill, an audience member, Brandon Scott Jones and Connor Ratliff. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

"We Know How You Die!" by the UCB Theatre continues through July 31 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St NW, Washington. Call 202-393-3939 or go online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin