The perfect recipe for an improv comedy team includes pirates, robots and ninjas. The pirates are the strongest characters, the ones with the most assertive personalities — they’re loud, they take up space, and they’re often at the center of everything. The robots have the technique of good improv down to a science, and they can consistently deliver precise, strategic responses that keep the pirates from steering the ship off course. The ninjas are people you will hardly notice are there, but are remarkably invaluable; they’re making the tiny support moves, putting all the right pieces of information in the right places so that a scene is perfectly aligned.
It was an idea that was first put into words by well-regarded improv comedian Billy Merritt, and, while some improvisers find it reductive, it’s a pretty useful framework when considering the mechanisms that drive an improv team.
Synergy Theater’s “Spontaneous Shakespeare” show at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek typified this old bit of improv dogma quite neatly. The nine-person ensemble took upon itself an ambitious endeavor — to improvise a full-length play in the style of Shakespeare, based on audience suggestions. The players emerged from backstage donning purple velvet pants, gold vests, blond wigs and puffy white shirts, and the crowd was welcomed to the Globe Theatre in the year 1608.
The title of the play, per audience suggestion, was “To Be Assessed,” and it followed three storylines. One, a tale of two brothers — a young gambler on the run from wildebeests, and a tax collector filled with a desperate longing for love. In another, a prince is to choose between two twin sisters for his bride, so that his wealth might save their father’s financial reputation. And finally, the story of a betrothed couple on the eve of their wedding day, only that our fair maiden has fallen for the tax collector, and our billowy-breasted lord was once wronged by the wildebeest-fearing gambler. The billowy-breasted lord has also a young, wiry accountant in his employ, who, as it’s later revealed, has slept with the twin sister who the prince has chosen to wed.
If it sounds profoundly convoluted, that’s because it is. But that’s what makes it fun.
The most obvious challenge facing “Spontaneous Shakespeare” was embracing the flowery, poetic dialogue. About half the cast excelled at this, crafting metaphors that could be as romantic as they were cheeky (“Much like a belt around the waist, I have found every loophole!” the accountant exclaims at one point). Others clearly struggled with designing their own Shakespearean verse, leaning much more into contemporary language, with a handful of thees and thous sprinkled in for good measure.
But on the topic of dialogue, the great folly of the pirate — steamrolling their scene partners — was at work here. A few male players should caution against interrupting their female scene partners, which happened at least once to every female in the cast. The problem of sharing space equitably is not an uncommon one in the improv community, and it’s an area in which Synergy Theater could more specifically focus its efforts.
From a structural perspective, the players performed surprisingly well, given the sheer number of plot threads they had to pull together. Of course, not every story was airtight, and there was considerable muddling among scene partners over whether the language was to be taken figuratively or literally, particularly where pickles and penises were concerned. Additionally, several of the scenes tended to run just a touch too long and would have benefitted from tighter setups.
But even with these weaknesses, Synergy Theater earned its stripes as an impressive group of improvisers. As much as any improv show could be, “To Be Assessed” was a clean run, with laugh-out-loud quips, bold choices, strong support and a memorable dose of pure creativity.
Shannon O’Hara covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]al.org.