The Improvised Shakespeare Company

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With other excited patrons, most clutching drinks from the theater bar, I joined a packed-out audience at the iO Theater on May 28, and waited to see why the Improvised Shakespeare Company is one of Chicago’s most popular weekend theater acts. Part of this group’s draw, of course, is the uniqueness of each performance. As the audience discovers prior to the show, this all-male acting company, suitably clad in white Renaissance laced shirts and breeches, improvises a play every performance night using “Shakespearean” language and plot devices. The title of each play derives from audience suggestions and neither plot nor dialogue can be recreated. Therefore, unless another critic went to see the same performance, this review is your only chance ever to read about the improbably titled play Prostitution, or Llamas,” improvised and acted by Matt Young, John Sabine, Asher Perlman, Brendan Dowling and Ric Walker.

How “Shakespearean” is this performance model? Obviously, Shakespeare’s plays themselves were repeatedly performed and such performances relied on the play text, though the plurality of Lear versions, for instance, indicates the play text’s adaptive fluidity. However, just because Shakespeare’s rhyming lines were already written does not mean that his comic actors recited them in that way, as I realized while watching this troupe connect with the crowd through their rhyming abilities. During this performance, the audience waited in suspense for the rhyme to be justified and usually burst into applause as each speaker concluded the second line of a couplet. Occasionally an audience member would suggest an ending (“ass” for “grass”), which the actor in rhyming difficulties would try to avoid using (“lass”). This jovial, bantering relationship between actors and audience evokes the role of the Shakespearean clown, or fool, who directly addressed and competed with spectators in wordplay.

The first scene showed farmer Henry (Brendan Dowling) and his loving wife Margaret (John Sabine) in the first of two subplots discussing how to improve their financial situation during England’s drought. “Heaven unto me did you send/And you are my bank account, and my little dividend!” exclaimed Henry. “Aye, and you, be ever happy—I’m tired of seeing you pouting/And we shall have a number, a number most routing!” responded Margaret. After debating selling the plentiful llamas in their field, or writing a children’s book about llamas, they decided that Henry must return to his old employment—moonlighting as stripper “Officer Mike” at the epic bachelorette party of Princess Elizabeth (Matt Young). There in the final act he met her friends: inexperienced Shauna, Sarah, Susan of the many ex-boyfriends, and perpetually dismal, milk-guzzling Deb, the girlfriend of a much older man (“When I stopped looking, I met Samuel. It’s so great. We just talk”). To everyone’s horror, Henry was unmasked as a married man, but pacified the girls by explaining his family’s plight.

The main plot involved the King of England (Ric Walker) insisting against Princess Elizabeth’s will that she marry the French dauphin, Prince Girard (played to coy Gallic perfection by John Sabine). Meanwhile, the Queen (Asher Perlman) and the dauphin carried on a passionate, secret affair. In a running joke, he constantly feared revealing France’s most important state secret—the water cycle—that could end England’s drought. “You are ze oxygen to mah fier, you are ze oxygen to mah wahter,” said Prince Girard lasciviously to the Queen, then covered his horrified mouth and gasped, “Ah have zaid too much!” In a second subplot, virginal woodcutter and orphan Edmund (Matt Young) journeyed through London’s streets to buy some love from ladies of the night. Having met the very weird courtesans “Beehive” (deep-voiced, slow-speaking), “Lydia, the Bat-Cave Dweller,” and “Rock,” Edmund began to get cold feet and eventually backed out: “I don’t like the scary way that one talks…I feel like I went down the wrong street.” Rhythmically stomping their feet in unison and converging around the terrified woodcutter in a wild dance that included swinging from the ceiling beams, they chanted, “You’ve got to make a choice! / Edmund, use your voice!” Several audience members were singing the catchy refrain at the bar during the intermission. After that impressive end to the first half, I felt that, were they ever to make an appearance, the llamas had no chance as rivals to the vivacious prostitutes.

A few problems emerged as the play concluded, but such is the comedic potential and license of the Improvised Shakespeare Company that these simply added meta-theatrical humor. The llamas dropped out of the plot almost entirely, but no one cared. A doubling nightmare ensued since Matt Young played both Princess Elizabeth and her suitor Edmund/Prince Edwardo of Spain, compelling him to constantly switch sides during “their” flirtatious conversation. In a rare listening failure, an actor mentioned the death of the King of France, to be corrected instantly by the dauphin and a few seconds later by a messenger entering to announce, “The King of Spain is dead.” “Yes, we already established that!” exclaimed another actor, joining in audience laughter. Ends needed to be tied up, and so the wedding priest inexplicably revealed himself to be the dauphin’s best friend Jean-Luc “in disguise!” Ultimately, Princess Elizabeth married Prince Edwardo (once Edmund), her mother married Prince Girard, and the couples’ powerful loves brought showers of rain and herds of llamas (imaginary, unfortunately) pouring into the landscape.

Besides the delight of seeing twenty-first-century actors with great chemistry compose poetry and prose in Shakespearean language, hearing constant anachronistic references and modern slang mixed in alongside has an incredibly comical and doubly relevant effect whether you know the Bard’s lingo or not. Past and present make beautiful comedy together, as Shakespeare himself realized. Just as his audience would have responded to the wild tavern scenes between Prince Hal and Falstaff during a king’s reign occurring generations before while simultaneously “getting” contem­porary allusions, so we also laugh both at the wit that parodies Shakespeare and the wit that mocks our own social behaviors and stereotypes.

Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia. Read more about Lydia…