Ad libbing the bard with the Improvised Shakespeare Co. at the Wheeler Opera House
IF YOU GO …
What: Improvised Shakespeare Co.
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, March 2, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $40-$50
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
If you know anybody who has taken improv classes or joined a troupe, you’ve no doubt heard a passionate exegesis of the miracles of the “group mind” and the “yes and” way of life. And improv comedy, done well, is absolutely thrilling feat of wit, cooperation and performance. But, of course, it’s hard. And really hard to do well. And excruciating for audiences when done poorly.
Blaine Swen and the Improvised Shakespeare Company players have turned up the level of difficulty to 11, aiming to create new and completely improvised Shakespeare plays before the audience’s eyes. Swen and his mates riff in Shakespearean language, they hew to Shakespearean themes and tropes and — miracle of miracles — they land laughs throughout.
The widely acclaimed troupe, which will headline the Wheeler Opera House on March 2 with a five-actor casts, starts like most improv groups with audience suggestions. They ask for a title from the crowd.
Swen’s favorites over the years have included “The Rocky Hamlet Picture Show,” “Shylock the Shy Locksmith,” and last week performed “Much Ado about Lethal Weapon.”
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“Once, we simply got the suggestion ‘Justin Bieber,’” Swen said in an e-mail. “Beiber turned out to be a tyrannical king who was dethroned by the Brothers Jonas. Oh! You know, one that always makes me smile is the title of a show that was suggested by a third-grader, ‘The Magical Farting Frog.’”
In a widely circulated recorded performance at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, the called-for title was “Rubber Crazy.” On the spot, the company improvised a short Shakespearean Comedy about a gentleman attempting to woo a young lady into bed without a condom. They dropped clever puns, inspired rhymes, staged an impromptu Shakespearan swordfight (“Here be one sword that is not sheathed tonight!”) and wrapped it up — in keeping with the template of the bard’s comedies — with a marriage.
You can fall down a YouTube rabbit-hole watching Improvised Shakespeare greats like “Well Hung Jury” and “The Knave’s Pantaloons.” They’re smart, silly, unpredictable, often bawdy, and they actually do adhere to the shape of Shakespeare’s format of Tragedy and Comedy, History and Romance (with the occasional improvised song-and-dance numbers peppered in). It’s a weird and wonderful thing to behold, these performances that can wow both unsuspecting comedy club audiences and English majors who have just finished term papers on “Titus Andronicus.”
To prepare, Swen and his team have immersed themselves in Shakespeare — reading and watching plays and film adaptations. Early on they met with Shakespeare scholars and started rehearsals with quizzes to build their Elizabethan vocabulary, reading Shakespeare contemporaries like Ben Johnson to help them improvise in the period’s style.
Other than that twist, their rehearsals are much like any improv group.
“We practice listening, reacting emotionally, speaking in Shakespearean vocabulary and rhyming,” Swen explained.
Founded in Chicago in 2005, Improvised Shakespeare has toured heavily with a rotating cast that’s included “Silicon Valley” star Thomas Middleditch in its ranks and has welcomed none other than Sir Patrick Stewart as a guest performer. Stewart — the Royal Shakespeare Company alum and nerd hero for embodying Professor Charles Xavier and Captain Pickard — performed with the company several times after a revelatory experience watching them in 2013. “How can this be improvisation? I thought. How can it be for the first time? This is too perfect, too clever, too intelligent, too structured,” he wrote in a 2014 essay for American Theatre magazine. “But that was a rehearsal. Then I saw them again at the dress rehearsal, and it was the same — but everything was new: story, characters, plot, subject. Then I saw them a third time with an audience, and they simply took flight. I was dazzled.”
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