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Jonathan Cabrera is one of the youngest and sharpest members of the cast. His style tends toward the surreal, conjuring tiny Jeeps that buzz around like mosquitoes, and making narwhal puns (it's possible: "I don't want no ceilings, nor floors, narwhals.")
"Currently, I'm looking for a job," he says. "I was a shipping and receiving manager, but in the past few weeks, I've also been an architect, a bank robber, a cave dweller, and a superhero. When you're a child and you're playing, you can be anything. Doing improv, you can keep that alive as an adult."
The best performers keep some part of their real selves onstage at all times, Cabrera says. "Maria on- and offstage is really loud and high energy. Mike is the same way. And I have fun. You may be performing, but it's still brand-new things you've never seen before, and you're going to find it funny too."
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Miami isn't the easiest place to hone an improv obsession. Cabrera, for one, pines for "a larger place where they have a broader improv community. But part of me wants to build something here in South Florida. I'm from here."
Even Rivera, who has been in the group since three months after it began in 1999, is "toying with the idea of moving to Chicago or Los Angeles to study the craft a bit more." From his perspective, what Miami improv lacks are performers who have left to study the craft elsewhere and have returned with their knowledge.
There's hope that Just the Funny will continue to grow, though. It had been nomadic like most other Miami improv groups until it landed its theater space nearly six years ago. Tom Neile, one of Just the Funny's owners and cast members, outlines a five-year plan for the group: "We're very close to being able to serve alcohol, and that's going to be a big step for us."
Informed of Neile's plan, though, Nato is less enthusiastic. "They say that's what's going to take us to the next level, but it's not," he says of alcohol sales. "We have such talent here in Miami, and when I go to these other cities like New York, Chicago, and L.A., I keep thinking that we're doing the same thing. But until we build that marketable entertainment world — one where Lorne Michaels is flying down to see shows or something — it's going to be an underground thing. That's not bad. It keeps it pure."
Some former Just the Funny players have gone to those cities in search of a bigger platform. Eddie Mujica is in the Second City theater's touring company. Joey Greer works as a comedian in Los Angeles. Maxx Maulion also went to L.A. and starred in Tony Tango, a South Florida-set comedy that screened at this year's Miami International Film Festival.
As for the current cast and current shows, Tomaino cautions, "You have to be there. Watching a recorded improv show is like watching recorded fireworks." The classes are something else altogether. They are like watching fireworks in your hand, the fuse sizzling.
Nato's class has moved to the theater's stage to take advantage of the air conditioning. The students are looser and freer as they enter the third hour of exercises and instruction — the phone salesman now an ebullient purse snatcher who delights in targeting old women. A thickly accented man in a dress shirt explains his incarceration for loitering: "I never really did anything with my life. And so one day I went outside. And I stayed there."
The lanky stoner brushes his hair off his forehead and tells 108 vacant seats about his life of regret as a superhero. "I'm taking off my mask and starting over," he says sincerely. "The rest of the world can burn, but who is going to save me?"
There's no joke, but Mike Nato nods and laughs anyway.