Review: ‘The Improvised Shakespeare Company’ at The Kennedy Center

The Improvised Shakespeare Company is a show that has been performed to sold out, jam-packed houses in its Chicago hometown since 2005, and in New York City, L.A., San Francisco, Montreal and more since it began touring several years ago. And, as in the Windy City, it often sells out as soon as it is announced.

Improvised Shakespeare Company. Photo courtesy of the artists.
Improvised Shakespeare Company. Photo courtesy of the artists.

This Chicago ensemble of five men works as a cohesive unit that, somehow, can read each other’s minds – most of the time. Each member has a strong Second City connection, a good memory, a critical love of Shakespeare, and ginormous funny bones.

This is a play with no plot. Each show is completely off-the-cuff improvisation. It’s funny to try to read past reviews of the show as the critic tries to explain a twirling plot line that will never be repeated.

Why? Because what you see will never be performed again. Not this way, not in this order.

But there is beauty in disorder.

The best way to explain the show – which put me in a terrific mood after fighting two hours of traffic to get there – is to imagine that the entire body of Shakespeare’s work has been put into a shredder along with a hardcover version of an 8th grade grammar book, and a compendium of Second City’s best comedy bits. As the show started, the cast hit the shred button, grabbed a metaphorical handful and took their places on stage.

The company’s followers were keening, screaming and squealing with laughter throughout the entire, side-splitting performance. Several audience members jumped up and down in their seats, while a few were wildly shaking their heads or banging them on the seats in front of them.

At the conclusion, the entire audience rose as one to continue laughing and clapping. They’d come in work-weary and left uplifted and looking years younger.

There is no set to speak of. Three sides of the stage are lined with long, black velvet drapes. On the plain black stage are three metal chairs, the kind you find in your doctor’s office, with blue seat and back cushions. Other than the chairs, there are no props – not that you can see. Dozens are visualized throughout the performance via gestures and references. Sure. We ALL saw the chute for dead bodies in the “Monologue Room.”

Improvised Shakespeare Company. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

This criminally comic enterprise includes players Joey Bland (who is anything but), Ross Bryant, Brendan Dowling, Blaine Swen (the show’s creator), and Steve Waltien.

All five, though they portray a multitude of Shakespearean-type characters of all genders and sexualities, wore the same outfit: a light-colored or white buccaneer shirt with black breeches, stockings, and leather shoes.

In the audience’s imagination, nearly all were female at some point. Some were damsels reminiscent of the characters in As You Like It or Twelfth Night. There were suggestions of the plotline of Henry V, a reference to the bear of A Winter’s Tale, and, thanks to a character portraying a walking tree, a big hint of Macbeth. Some wore multiple imaginary costumes and skins – like the men who were women who dressed as men in armor.

Cast members would deliver an original bit of prose, only to be interrupted by another cast member riffing off of something they had heard to take the story in an entirely new direction. Absurdity abounded and the night I attended, though the show was set in the Renaissance, all the characters harbored a deep dislike for TSA agents, whom they referred to as “satanic angels.”

When was the last time you hear the phrase “aspirant prefix”? Or, heard a Shakespearean-toned thespian segue into last week’s street jive talk? The Improvised Shakespeare Company blends all of this and more into a one-of-a-kind performance.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission. Because of the improvised nature of the show, it could vary by several minutes. Thursday evening’s performance was one hour and 40 minutes.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company runs through April 8, 2018, at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600, or go online.

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!


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