Improvised Shakespeare Company is rollicking, witty delight at SF Sketchfest

The Improvised Shakespeare Company/Courtesy

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William Shakespeare may be regarded as one of the greatest writers in Western history, but when it comes to humor, even the Bard himself is no match for the Improvised Shakespeare Company. Founded in 2005 by Blaine Swen, the company draws in its wide-eyed audiences with one promise: Given but a single suggestion, five members of its rotating cast can create and act out a full-length Shakespearean play on the spot.

The spontaneity almost sounds too good to be true, but when this promise was put to the test at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre last Friday, the results were nothing short of incredible. Clad in loose, white shirts and what may have been actual breeches, the improvisers set off on a tumultuous journey of love, rejection and betrayal, all based on the suggested show title: “Young Zombies in Love.”

The performance kicked off with an opening monologue in rhyming couplets given by one of the improvisers, mimicking the prologues of plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Henry VIII.” Right off the bat, it became clear that the Improvised Shakespeare Company’s beauty lies in its members’ wit and wordplay. The improvisers were seemingly inexhaustible with their words, weaving Elizabethan English into “Resident Evil” references and modern-day sexual humor — just as the Bard would have wanted — and making it sound as natural as ever.

As a result, the production ran on a skillful mix of both high and low humor that felt reminiscent of Shakespeare himself. A break in character or a well-timed quip in modern English drew laughter just as often as the elevated language and witty puns. Even the naming conventions hinged on this blend of modern and archaic. At Friday’s show, some emerging characters were dubbed with existing Shakespearean names, such as Antonio and Lorenzo, while others were given comically odd or anachronistic names, such as Tony, Gary and, to the audience’s utmost delight, Febreze.

What makes an improv troupe truly interesting to watch, however, is not the talent of the individuals, but the harmony of the group. As would be expected from such a long-running project, the company members seemed to have genuine chemistry onstage, laughing alongside the audience as they supported and messed with one another in equal measure. And on a technical level, their performance had an air of smoothness and fine-tuning that can largely be attributed to “group mind,” a sort of mythical and exalted group consciousness that all improvisers hope to achieve. Swen was particularly brilliant in this regard; at times, it was almost eerie how he could pick up the end of someone else’s sentence and finish their rhyme.

Group mind aside, another element that made the performance seem so well-rehearsed — or even rehearsed at all — is the formulaic nature of Shakespeare’s plays. Avid Shakespeareans in the crowd may have felt like they could guess what was coming next before the improvisers could even think it up. A typical performance may go like this: Play opens, cue newly devoted lover and cautious friend, cue fair lady and her nurse, cue villain and his excessively roundabout plan and so on. This pattern is a pleasant sort of certainty for the audience to fall back on amidst the chaos of improv, and was likely helpful to the performers as well, allowing them to focus on their dialogue and wordplay and worry less about the plot.

Still, it can be said that the Improvised Shakespeare Company isn’t weighed down by predictability or banality. Despite nearly an hour and a half-long run, the company managed to keep the energy high throughout, achieved in part by the introduction of a hilarious subplot in which a group of gondoliers was out for revenge. With the high excitement and low intelligence of Bottom’s theater troupe in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the gondoliers rounded out what would have been a rather dramatic — yet still achingly funny — plotline for an improv show.

Ultimately, the Improvised Shakespeare Company put on a performance with the range and variety worthy of the Bard himself, an entertaining mix of high and low humor and of modern jokes with Elizabethan puns. The show may not be half as cerebral as a typical Shakespeare play, but it’s certainly twice as fun.

Contact Lauren Sheehan-Clark at [email protected].