This is my first time experiencing The Improvised Shakespeare Company, and as I sit down to write a review of their performance, I have to be honest – I’m almost speechless. Seeing this group perform feels like witnessing a whole new art form: their work is a combination of improv comedy, poetry, sketch comedy and drama all in one. I feel like I need to buy tickets for another show so I have something to judge them against. Just comparing them to other improv comedy performances almost seems unfair.
The work of these actors is much more than a simple “yes, and…” -ing. For those who aren’t in the know, The Improvised Shakespeare Company is an improv comedy troupe – they take a suggestion from the audience and compose a comedy sketch on the spot – but they do it in iambic pentameter, in Elizabethan English (with only occasionally a modern sound of jokes, which I never felt were overused or relied on to take a break from the more complicated language), and create a piece of it in several acts of an hour or more. Regular improvisation is hard enough. I didn’t join the Georgetown improvisation troupe. It is really hard.
In my (relatively brief) experience, most “long-form improvised comedy” shows consist of three to five “scenes”, which, without a few callbacks, are more or less unrelated to each other. terms of plot and characters. The Improvised Shakespeare Company took it upon themselves not only to improvise each scene, but also to create characters with distinctive personality traits, satisfying slogans, jokes and arcs – who also speak Shakespearean English. Oh, and they have to play these characters while playing a whole range of others over the course of the series.
Almost immediately in the show, we catch ourselves thinking: there must be a secret here. I’ve worked in satirical writing, sketch comedy, and comedy podcasting, and I have to say, the only way these guys can do that is to have some sort of pre-set pattern for the plot advance at the pace necessary to have the play finish up, with all the arcs completed, i is pointed and t is crossed out, in an hour and a half. They have to have some sort of plan for what is to happen in which scene on the show, have pre-planned characters that just adjust their motivations to the audience’s suggestion that accomplish X, Y, or Z. What I say at the end in the end, of course, this show is incredibly awesome, with all that “how did they do that?” charm.
I also think that since the troupe has been active since 2005, they probably learned Shakespearean English as a foreign language themselves, and are now fluent in it. Translating a thought into a language in their head would be just too difficult.
I hope I paint a picture of the absolutely breathtaking exhibition I witnessed at the Kennedy Center. I am stuck in front of my laptop, wondering like a mad scientist how they could have done this. This is what you are here for. Go.
I have almost nothing to criticize. The show began with a soliloquy by one of the five players (Ross Bryant), which was inspired by the line suggested by the audience (at this show, that line was “Just Say No”, which was, of course , the anti-drug advertising campaign of the 80s and 90s created and championed by Nancy Reagan). Maybe my only real criticism of this show – and perhaps my only clue to its execution – is that the soliloquy (summed up, in crude modern parlance, of course) came down to “Just say no to drugs … and love is a drug! Here is a play on love.
The play itself was a look at the troubled romance between Helena and Ajax from ancient Greek (and Spartan… and Shakespearean), and specifically recalled the phrase “Just Say No” on several occasions. Still, the slight noticeable drift from the original audience-generated prompt was barely noticeable until it popped up in the post-show chat I had with the friend I had gone with. .
Every now and then, there seemed to be more characters than I could keep track of (the five actors played well over five characters over the course of the series), and the complicated language didn’t help me figure it out. get back on track – but ultimately I was receiving too much anytime entertainment value from the whipped comedy for character confusion to become a real issue.
The show was very funny, technically profoundly impressive and inspiring for me as a young actor. If I have time next week, I will try to go back so I can judge this group against itself. I really don’t have any other frame of reference for the art form these guys created, so that’s only fair.
Shakespeare’s Improvised Company is a traveling troupe of seven actors: each performance includes five performers. The show I saw on December 10, 2021 included Brendan Dowling, Greg Hess, Ross Bryant, Joey Bland, and troupe founder Blaine Swen.
Duration: About 80 minutes, without intermission.
COVID Security: Kennedy Center vaccination and mask policy is here.
The digital program can be viewed here.