Lately I've been exploring entertainment options in the I-Drive area south of the city. But this week I'm back in Orlando proper, because there are certain things you can only get downtown. For example, the $2 dirty-water hot dog I had for dinner Friday. Sure, the second-rate sausage was mostly snout scraps, and my no-name Sprite tasted like liquid Pez, but the nice thing about downtown is that there's always another nosh around the next block. So a spicy empanada and sweet sangria from nearby Roho Art & Coffee was there to wash the oink away. Before you wonder when this became a food blog, I swear there's a theatrical theme. My destination this evening was directly above Roho, where an old Orlando favorite has made its return to the east side of I-4. Welcome back, SAK!
SAK Comedy Lab has been an Orlando institution for nearly 20 years, so it would be easy to take for granted the effort that's gone into sustaining the troupe over the years. SAK Theatre started as a trunk show at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival with Terry Olson (now Orange County's director of Arts & Cultural Affairs), Craig Wilson, and Herb and Bernelle Hansen. After moving to Florida to found interactive improv performances around Epcot's World Showcase, in 1991 SAK established its first downtown home in an old funeral chapel on Pine Street. Subsequent spaces were similarly scrappy, like their storefront stage on Church Street, which later disappeared into the Plaza high-rise.
Over the past decade SAK was ensconced in the Centroplex II parking garage, but rising rent found them seeking new space. A yearlong search led to the Eola Capital Loft on the second floor of CityArts Factory, which is leased by the city and administered by Downtown Arts District Inc. It's a natural fit; D.A.D. was searching for a permanent tenant for the space, and SAK needed a stable and visible location. This past February, after a frantic few days evacuating their old spot, SAK quietly reopened on Third Thursday in February and has been performing there every Tuesday through Saturday since.
Upon arriving for a show, my first impression was "SAK has grown up." Beautifully appointed with hardwood and exposed brick, the room previously was under-utilized because of physical limitations. Artistic director David Russell saw it as a perfect relocation for SAK because there's no need for a fly space or backstage area typical of theaters. Crowd flow directs the audience into the shiny lounge area, where a stainless-steel snack bar sells those sinful cake pops (and, hopefully someday soon, beer and wine). The performance space proper has been built out with a bare black stage, basic light and sound systems, and elevated seating for 196 spectators. As Russell showed me in a snazzy Google SketchUp CGI architectural rendering, there are big plans for further improvements.
In SAK's old home in the parking garage, the audience area was extremely wide but only a few rows deep. The layout is now the opposite — a narrower house extends back from the stage a dozen rows. The distance makes it less intimate, but sitting near the back didn't prevent host Rob Ward from mercilessly showering me with Tootsie Rolls during his pre-show warm-up. The rest of the Duel of Fools show was also as I remembered it from my many past visits: a spirited series of improvised Whose Line Is It Anyway?—style standards, such as freeze tag and Siamese expert. The theater-as-sport improv depends heavily on the performers' skills, and I lucked out with an exceptional cast. A big hand to Darren Vierday for his loopy Neil Diamond and Jeff Goldblum impressions as well as to multitalented Chase Padgett, both a damn fine singer and a doppelgänger for The Office's Dwight Schrute.
Best of all, Russell himself joined the fun. While not as swift with a song lyric as were some of the younger improvisers, his supersized sign-language shtick is like a master-class in silent slapstick. The highest compliment I can pay is that the 90-minute spectacle blew by so fast, I barely had time to look at my watch.
SAK offers top entertainment value for under $15, so it's a shame many people seem surprised they are still around. Russell says with the jump in expenses, SAK is "still in survival mode" and "hanging on." Perhaps SAK should hold that grand-opening its been promising, but Russell told me that the space is still a work-in-progress (the box office only arrived two weeks ago). They want to wait until they have something "grand" to show off — maybe for the 20th anniversary next year, especially if they can wrangle celebrity alumni to attend. Quick, someone call Wayne Brady in Vegas; tell him to quit playing Monty Hall and get down here before another Orlando institution firstname.lastname@example.org