With the amount of Shakespeare in DC (home to the Folger Library, Shakespeare Theatre Company, and outfits like Taffety Punk) and improv comedy (looking at you, Washington Improv Theater, DC Improv, and Dojo Comedy), the Venn diagram of people who would love the Improvised Shakespeare Company might be a single circle. Or maybe concentric circles, like a target, because this troupe of jesters hits the mark when it comes to comedy.
Founded in Chicago in 2005, the Improvised Shakespeare Company has brought mirth to audiences across the country, including DC for the last several years. They’re currently plying their spontaneous trade at the Kennedy Center until December 18.
What’s in a name? For the Improvised Shakespeare Company, everything you need to know. Over 90 minutes, five performers—Joey Bland, Ross Bryant, Brendan Dowling, Greg Hess, and Blaine Swen (could they sound more Elizabethan?)—improvise an entire play using the “styles, themes, and language of the immortal Bard, William Shakespeare.” Along the way you’ll get iambic pentameter and rhyme schemes, murders most foul, sweeping love stories, disguises and intrigues, songs and diversions, and in the end, in the Bard’s own words, “stairs to marriage.”
Like nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays, everything starts with someone else’s idea. Or, suggestion, rather, of the title for the not-yet-written play. An audience member offered “Heaven’s Cabaret” the evening I attended. What followed was a deliciously twisted tale of the dangers of repressing love set in the authoritarian kingdom of Bohemia, complete with cross-dressing heroes, a wizened nurse, a ubiquitous porter named Raymond, and a Cabaret-inspired chair ballet.
Of course, every performance will be different, entirely created in real-time in front of your very eyes: the world premiere and the closing night, as the company informs you.
Every performer is more than up to the task at hand. There are supposedly 11,000 rhymes in English, and these guys must know them all given the amount of couplets they produce off their cuffs. They drop words like “ducal,” “mayhap,” “sooth,” and “bedeck” with ease. They play multiple parts, from leads to walk-ons, with aplomb. The breadth of references—from medieval to modern—was staggering, as was their ability to weave running jokes through the evening.
You don’t need to know much about Shakespeare to enjoy the performance; whatever impression or memory of complicated plots and outdated language from 9th-grade English suffices. That said, a deeper knowledge of the Stratfordian playwright doesn’t go unrewarded. I appreciated the similarities between “Heaven’s Cabaret” and Measure for Measure, and felt a small thrill hearing familiar names like “Cassio” and “Bianca.”
The only thing left to say is: get thee to the Kennedy Center. Mayhap there’s not a funnier hour and a half in all of the District right now, and that’s forsooth.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Improvised Shakespeare Company performs through December 18, 2022, daily except Monday at The Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$45) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
The program for the Improvised Shakespeare Company is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.
Improvised Shakespeare Company at KenCen is absolutely stunning (review by Alexandra Bowman, December 12, 2021)