REVIEW: THE IMPROVISED SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
at the Denver Center
by Owen Niland
I am a big fan of Shakespeare, but I am not a big fan of improv. So, an evening with The Improvised Shakespeare Company was, for me, a very interesting experience. How does one review a ‘play’ (in the loosest sense of the word) without a script; one where the classic Aristotelian elements of drama: plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and song come together in the moment – literally off
the top of the actor’s heads? Let’s just say it was a challenge.
Denver is lucky enough to have at the helm of this production Blaine Swen, the creator of The Improvised Shakespeare Company (or, the ISC for short), which he founded in 2005 at the famed iO Theater in Chicago, a town very familiar with the improv scene. The accolades for the ISC are lengthy, including performances at D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Bonnaroo, the San Francisco Sketch Fest, Montreal’s
Just For Laughs Festival, and the Soho Theater in London, all in addition to their current permanent home in Los Angeles. Based on this pedigree the DCPA was wise to snap up the troupe for a long stay at the Galleria Theater.
An ISC performance, like much improv, is based on a suggestion from the audience – in this case the title of the play, which the night I attended was “It’s All True.” From there the spirited performers jump off for a full 90 minutes of unscripted, but not to say unstructured madcap nonsense and tomfoolery in service of Shakespeare’s newest play.
The structure is “Shakespearian” in the most delightfully prurient of ways. Upon the opening night (and immediate closing night) of “It’s All True” our team of five actors treated the audience to a mash up of Shakespeare’s greatest hits – vengeful sons, confused fathers, distant mothers, revenge, magic, songs, rhyming couplets, iambic pentameter, mistaken identities, lust, sex, pride, all to name only a bit of the goings on. Added to these fairly common elements we were also introduced to some “feral orphans”, a tragically despondent woman whose only job in the castle is to act as a replacement for a door, and a finale that revealed Gallic palace intrigue as authentically French as the crêpe du jour at a Mimi’s Café.
Needless to say, the absurd rules above all during a night with the ISC. I laughed, a lot, and I was very impressed with the concentration of the actors on stage. The ability to perform improv in such a tightly organized fashion comes from extensive training and is not something that is easily achieved.
Indeed, improv is like walking a tightrope, and part of the thrill for both the audience and the actor is watching it come together in the moment. When a joke fully comes together, or when one of the actors resolves a particularly difficult rhyme, you laugh – not just because it’s funny (as much of an evening with ISC is), but because there is shared relief among actor and their audience that the teetering
structure they’re all experiencing for the first time stays afloat
As with all improv there were flaws – some of the mugging got a little overblown, some of the scenes went on 90 seconds too long, and some of the jokes skirted a line of good taste (although if you’re at an improv show, you’re probably not one to be too offended from the get-go). My main criticism lies with the lack of any female voices in the all-male ensemble. I felt a female improv actor would’ve added some much-needed variety in the tone of the humor, which occasionally relied on some not-so-fresh locker room humor and gay innuendo jokes.
Taken for what it is though, an evening with the ISC is a delightful evening, full of irreverent, absurd energy, head-twisting turns of plot no-one (including the actors) will see coming, and rhymes, song and tricks of the tongue to keep everyone’s ears entertained.
The Improvised Shakespeare Company is in residence at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Galleria Theater through March 2020 with performances nightly, Tuesday through Sunday. For tickets or more information, contact the Denver Center Box Office by calling 303-893-4100 or online at www.denvercenter.org.