The Improvised Shakespeare Company

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On Friday, October 14, 2016, The Improvised Shakespeare Company performed the opening and closing night of “No Handlebars” to a packed house.[1] A year ago, on October 24, 2015, I saw the opening and closing night of “King Henry the 27th.” The audience helps to choose the title, and, Shakespearean or not, each performance has been a joy. The Improvised Shakespeare Company’s unique productions, each the opening and closing night of a completely new improvised Shakespearean parody, makes for a night out full of comradery and laughter.

The iO Theater moved in 2014 to a new larger location in Old Town, recreating their plain black minimalist set from Wrigleyville, providing both row and table seating, and expanding their bar into an independent space. I admit I missed some of the old theater’s hole-in-the-wall ambiance, but the move also provided iO more space to work, and a location away from some of the complications of being a theater next door to the Cubs. As you enter the theater, you first pass the bar to stock up on whatever snacks or drinks you might need during the performance, though you can put in orders during the show if you are seated at one of the tables. Once you enter the space, and the show is about to begin, the mood takes on a celebratory feel, as the audience is amped up by multi-colored strobe lights and a sort of updated intense Elizabethan tune, all before the cast even enters to take suggestions.

What makes this “Improvised Shakespeare” and not just Long-Form Improv though? The cast takes nothing more than a title from the audience to begin their hour-long performance, with a break for intermission, and from that title, crafts a plot and accompanying dramatis personae using an arsenal of early modern performance tropes. On the most recent night I had the pleasure, the cast took a bike-related prompt, “No Handlebars” and twisted it to focus on an intense drama featuring a facial hair competition. A quick synopsis: two orphaned-sisters, Celia and Laurel live in a convent, under the care of Mallory Malcontent, and dream of the world outside. At the same time, the Duke’s two sons, Orlando and Alonso, prepare for the Annual Festival and take into their guardianship a poor gardener, Betrando, and hijinks ensue, complete with love plots, reunited families, and unexpected twists. While “No Handlebars” included many recognizably “Shakespearean” characteristics, the Bard was fond of twin shenanigans, lost children, mentors in revelry, competition between brothers, and suspiciously reformed baddies, as well as impressive performative virtuoso moments of prologue and epilogue, which the ISC takes on in the form of improvised rhyming iambic pentameter, ISC’s performance also featured elements of early modern court masques, as a catalogue of competitors in the facial hair competition paraded across the stage, and a nod toward Restoration Comedy with its penchant for on-the-nose alliterative names like Mallory Malcontent (her name later changes to Mallory Satisfied). While this may not make the performance strictly “Shakespearean,” the Improvised Shakespeare Company brings together seventeenth-century performance methods and its recognizable genres, in order to create a night of modern comedic entertainment which also showcases an intense familiarity and expertise in the methods and practices of English theatre historiography and literature.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the show is watching the cast collaborate. Of course, this is true of any good Improv cast, but here, in a production named for the Bard, it harkens back to a method of highly ensemble performance, and makes a passing nod at “original practice” recasting Shakespeare in a modern genre. The actors must again hang on their scene partners’ every word because they themselves don’t know for sure what comes next, as they wait for their cue wherever it may appear. Long-Form Improv, though without the scripted “Parts” of a full dramatis personae, arguably has more in common to the theater as Shakespeare knew it than modern performances of Shakespeare’s own plays sometimes do. Though the audience does sit in chairs, they react, call out, eat, drink, and generally enjoy themselves much like Falstaff and company do in Henry IV Part 1. ISC’s answer to Falstaff’s question “What, shall we be merry? Shall we have a play extempore?” (1 Henry IV, 2.4 280-1) is a resounding and joyous “yes,” as is an especially fitting answer in the improv world.

The cast is always ready to play on stage, to support each other, and yes, to tease each other, especially when they’ve introduced a hyperbolic and complicated reference, as they did in “No Handlebars” on multiple occasions, putting each other on the spot to repeat the reference in full. The cast also plays intensely with anachronism and specific call-outs for the audience. For example, when Ric Walker, playing Alonso, one of the Duke’s sons, delivers a soliloquy describing his secret plan to beat his brother in the festival competition with his expandable wingspan handlebar moustache and win the love of Celia, he delivers an aside to note that he would not win her love without receiving her “consent enthusiastically.” During this speech, the audience cheers and whoops and whistles their approval. In so doing, he manages to call attention to a major weakness of much early modern drama, a general lack of agency for female characters, and include a modern reference to education about consent as well.

It is somewhat odd however, that this skillfully presented critique of the dominant historic, and decidedly masculine, discourse comes from a man in a troupe of only men. Though it is perhaps significant that the moment cited above came from Ric Walker, the only PoC cast member that evening, and one of what appears to be only two black members of seventeen total players (the other fifteen of whom present as white cis-men). In a city as diverse as Chicago, with as vibrant a theater and comedy community as this city boasts of, it seems, at least from the outside, like a problem worth the ISC’s and iO’s attention. This issue of diversity also comes up when considering that the ISC’s cast is made up exclusively of individuals of the male persuasion.

I understand the reference to Original Practice performance in parody, and I understand the creativity and power of cross-gendered casting and drag performance. Though playing gendered stereotypes solely for comedic effect comes with its own baggage, I do feel the ISC, in general, is very respectful of their gendered performances and skillfully critiques the binary, as when Celia herself wins the facial hair competition in “No Handlebars.” However, if the creative investment of the company is in cross-gendered casting, would not having actors perform genders different from their own but still within a mixed-gender cast also satisfy that concept? Or, if the investment is rather in the primarily single-gendered cast, why not have multiple casts? I would love to see female improvisers performing Shakespearean Improv with the ISC, and I don’t think that I’m alone. Diversity of experience and identity in the cast will only improve an already strong show. Hell, I’d pay to see a double feature. Perhaps “No Handlebars, Parts 1 and 2” next time I’m in town.

[1] The cast on this night included Asher Perlman, Brendan Dowling, Ric Walker, Randall Harr and Tim Sniffen.

Hilary J. Gross is a graduate student and instructor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is pursuing her Master’s and PhD in the English department with a focus on early modern theatre and Shakespeare through the inter-disciplinary lenses of affect, adaptation, and performance. She was the inaugural British Literature Fellow at UIUC, and previously graduated cum laude from Wellesley College with her BA in English literature as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Eta Chapter of Massachusetts.

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…