Shakespeare UnScripted

Stage and Cinema

Reviewed By:  Jason Rohrer

April 1, 2014

SHAKESPEARE WISHES HE WERE THIS FUNNY
The only people who buy tickets to Shakespeare comedies are college-educated men who want to act like they know how to show a girl a sophisticated good time, despite evidence that she’d rather watch vampires have sex on TV.  That addled guy, and theater people’s mother-guilt sense of cultural obligation, are the only reasons Shakespeare comedies get mounted.
Impro Theatre, however, is funny and sophisticated, and will make your date look at you with new eyes.  Your date will say, “Gee, your choice of entertainment suggests a great deal of respect for me, and for yourself.  In fact, now that you’ve shown me this amazing thing, I see myself in a new light, as someone who wants to go down on someone like you.”
I could tell you stories but a gentleman doesn’t and neither will I.
Among Impro’s many genre-emulation performance styles that it collectively calls UnScripted (Austen, Williams, Noir, Chekhov, Twilight Zone, others) is Shakespeare, and being a comedy-oriented theater, Impro doesn’t make up a tragedy every night.  They improvise two-act comedies, with the traditional Shakespearean elements of Italian locale, outrageously contrived obstacles to romance, and a remarkable number of rhyming couplets spoken by besotted courtiers, lovestruck dukes, overzealous servants.  And yes, there might be cross-dressing (there wasn’t, opening night); there might be a mistaken identity or two (I don’t know how you’d do a Shakespearean comedy without at least one).  There certainly will be some sexual innuendo, but opening night the dick jokes were in short supply and the fart jokes nonexistent.  Because along with as high a degree of general excellence in writing, acting, and direction as I have seen in any theater company in America, Impro has in abundance another rare element: taste.
Which is not to call them a bunch of stuffed-shirt academics.  They’re as racy as Derby Day when they want to be, and a more adventurous gang of thespians you will not meet.  But you could bring your grandmother to this thing, and she would not scold you; you could bring your kids, and they would not call you square, or whatever kids call parents these days.  You could bring that date I was pointedly not telling you about.  Every time I go to see them, at some point the person in front of me turns around and gives me a dirty look, because I’m laughing as hard as it is possible for a theater critic to laugh.  Which, it turns out: pretty goddamn hard.

Shakespeare In LA

April 5, 2014

SHAKESPEARE UNSCRIPTED TURNS COMEDY INTO ART

No one is standing on ceremony in Impro Theatre’s latest comedic invention, Shakespeare UnScripted. On the contrary, the only formality you’ll find here is the kind you leave at the door when you step foot into the theater. Impro’s boisterous crew offers more belly laughs than anyone making up a Shakespearean situational comedy should legally have the right to, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Shakespeare smarty-pants or a total newbie to have a great time.
The framework is inspired by the play-within-a-play structure of The Taming of the Shrew, with the actors welcoming audience members into their Italian café; soon to be the stage upon which they will perform. By the way, the transformation of the newly-redesigned Carrie Hamilton from proscenium to black box is rather dramatic and if you remember its antiquated state, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the update.
Using only two suggestions from the audience – in this case, something from nature (a sirocco) and an event (a coronation) – 7 of Impro’s 17 company members begin to create a brand new play full of the conceits and story threads normally found in Shakespeare’s comedies. There is love, intrigue, mistaken identities, a resolution of the plot twists in the final minutes, and even some hilarious singing and dancing. It will change at every performance based on what the audience volunteers and where the characters’ fancies take them, but to a one, every actor jumps into this quirky Shakespearean world with ease.
On opening night, Paul Rogan appeared as a newly-minted king convinced to find a wife by his servants, Dan O’Connor (the honorable one) and Brian Lohmann (the questionable one) while a sweet servant (Lisa Fredrickson) and two plotting princesses (Kelly Holden-Bashar and Edi Patterson) journey to his city, accompanied by a fool (Stephen Kearin).
Much of the fun is in watching how they establish the characters and then work to integrate them into the story. A running gag started early on when two of the actors misjudged the other’s timing and began to speak at the same time, causing more than a few jokes about the plague of interruptions rampant in Verona. It also prompted a very funny rebuke later in the show when an upstage actor attempted to step into a pause in the downstage conversation. But it’s never a problem. Instead of ignoring the fumbles, the cast works them into the story, taking advantage of every opportunity to laugh at themselves too. And that makes the audience feel even more included. After all, who doesn’t like feeling like an insider.
From beginning to end, this is a complete team effort, and that also means Michael Becker improvising the lighting and Alex Caan improvising the sound; not an easy task. Becker has an intuitive ability to predict when a scene has run its course and Caan pulled out a couple of musical transitions that were exceptional. Sandra Burns’ Mediterranean color scheme visually unites costumes and set by using rich Tuscan gold and sienna accents.
Good improv is hard to beat and in L.A. you can find plenty of it. Great improv, like the kind Impro Theatre creates, takes comedy and turns it into an art. I swear, we couldn’t stop laughing.

Pop Culture Beast

March 31, 2014

I have to admit I had some reservations going into this production of Shakespeare Unscripted. After all, what is Shakespeare without the script? Shakespeare is all about the poetry. And I’ve seen a lot of improvisation shows. Sometimes they’re wonderful, sometimes not. Fortunately, the actors performing Shakespeare Unscripted are at the top of their game, and completely capture the spirit of Shakespearean comedy even as they create their own story. And by the way, what they do borrow or lift from Shakespeare comes mainly from the comedies. This is a group that moves within that spirit, not a group that steps outside of it to poke fun of it. And so it is a joyous experience, both for performers and audience.
The fun begins even before the show does. The audience members wait in the lobby to be seated, like at an Italian restaurant. A sign announces “Today’s specials,” listing some of the actors from the ensemble who will be performing that evening. The actors, dressed as the staff of the restaurant, then greet and interact with the audience as they go in. (One actor says about a visibly pregnant woman, “She’s going to have a baby,” then assures the rest of the audience, “Not tonight!”) The conceit is that these waiters will perform a play for us while we are at their establishment. As noted in the program, the inspiration is taken from The Taming Of The Shrew, the bulk of which is a play put on in front of the drunken Christopher Sly, who is made to believe he’s a lord.
When they begin the actual performance, the actors line up in front of the audience and announce they’re going to improvise a Shakespeare play for them. They ask for two things from the audience, the first being something from nature. Someone shouts out, “Sirocco.” One of the cast members responds honestly, “I have no idea what that is.” Another cast member says, “I used to drive one of those.” (I wish my friend Ryan was in attendance – he still drives one of those – though it’s spelled Scirocco.) The second thing they ask for is an action that has just occurred. A man offers, “A coronation.” And the play is suddenly underway.
Though the dialogue is improvised, the actors occasionally use lines that are similar to those from Shakespeare’s works. In fact, the first line about the heaviness of the crown calls to mind Henry IV. And later someone says, “I am confused and know not what to say” (which is quite close to Hermia’s line “I am amazed, and know not what to say” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). And some of the character names they choose come from Shakespeare’s plays: Bassanio from The Merchant Of Venice, Ursula from Much Ado About Nothing, and Claudio from both Much Ado About Nothing and Measure For Measure.
As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, there are people switching identities (though none of the women disguise themselves as men). There are shades of Measure For Measure when the Duke, disguised, goes out among his people. (That also brings to mind Henry V, who wanders through his camp the same way.) And we have royalty and servants exchanging places.
Some of the joy from this performance also comes from the fact that the actors provide each other with challenges within the dialogue, which at the performance I attended led to a dance and song. They’re clearly skilled at improvisation, and are quite knowledgeable about Shakespeare’s plays. They seem quite at home in that world, easily slipping into asides. They even manage to end a couple of scenes with rhyming couplets, which is impressive, and gets applause from the audience.
This group is so adept at taking a joke and running with it, even improving it as it goes on. The new Duke has two advisors, one of whom, Bassanio, immediately begins interrupting, allowing for a running gag. Later in the play, he tells Lily (disguised as Ursula) that since meeting her, he’s stopped interrupting as much. “It is as if my soul has found punctuation.” The audience laughs through most of the performance. But perhaps more striking is the fact that the group is also able to find and create serious and meaningful moments that are just as effective and affecting. And it was often at those moments that I felt they had really captured the essence of Shakespeare.
There is one ten-minute intermission, which is announced by the cast as their Italian restaurant personas. (I couldn’t help but wonder how much was being discussed backstage during intermission, regarding the intended course of the story.) After the intermission, the cast again lines up downstage in front of the audience, and asks for a bit of input to get the second act underway. I did find that the second half wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the first, though I did laugh out loud quite a lot. The ensemble seems more adept at getting themselves into complications than out of them. And certain relationships that were begun early on then don’t quite pay off. Still, that’s only a minor issue. And of course each night will be different anyway.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

Reviewed By:   F. Kathleen Foley
July 3, 2009

Improvisational theater is high-risk. Those who practice it are the theatrical equivalent of circus aerialists. Working without a net, they defy the audience’s gravity.

For some 20 years, Impro Theatre has been performing death-defying stunts of impromptu parody, sending up authors from Jane Austen to Tennessee Williams. In their latest offering, “Shakespeare UnScripted,” presented in conjunction with Theatre/Theater, the company undertakes the works of William Shakespeare.

One can hardly imagine a more gut-wrenching endeavor than winging a Shakespearean play completely off the cuff. However, extempore from their mother wit, these comically gifted performers fracture the Bard with a right good will.

The show, based on audience suggestion, changes nightly. Guest performers occasionally hook up with the core cast, which includes Tracy Burns, Brian Jones, Stephen Kearin, Nick Massouh and Floyd Van Buskirk. Co-directors Brian Lohmann and Dan O’Connor, who also perform, are the deftest improvisers in the bunch, but all involved keep the laughs coming and the cadence astonishingly Shakespearean.

On this particular evening, the show lost momentum in the second act – possibly because silliness like this should be compressed into a breezy one-act format. And one wishes that “light and sound improvisers” Jim Sabo and Ruben Vernier had the wherewithal to flicker those lights ever so gently when a particular scene grinds on too long. That works at comedy clubs on open mike nights and could help here. Still, despite a few bruising tumbles, these remarkably clever performers fly through the show with the very greatest of ease.

A KATE WEST REVIEW

July 9, 2009

“Shakespeare UnScripted” is the latest improvisational feat by Impro Theatre, the same company that brought you “Jane Austen UnScripted.” Consisting of an ensemble of professional improvisers, the company presents impromptu Shakespearean-style scenes for your viewing pleasure. Taking a suggestion from the audience, they create an entire play, complete with murder, intrigue and worthy puns.

Stand-outs this particular evening included the outstandingly talented co-directors, Dan O’Connor and Brian Lohmann. The hilarious duo Michele Spears and Tracy Burns gave them a run for their money as well. Harkening back to previous insights and delighting in pointing out inconsistencies, the cast has a lot of fun improvising and are, for the most part, up to the challenging language. Some members are stronger than others, but overall, it proves an entertaining evening.

This is a company worth watching and learning from (they offer classes too). If Shakespeare isn’t your thing, you might want to check out the even more impressive Jane Austen version, or even “Sondheim UnScripted”.

SAN DIEGO NEWS NETWORK

Reviewed By:  Pat Launer
July 22

They came baaaack. Those fabulous improvisers from L.A.’s Impro Theatre made another welcome visit to North Coast Repertory Theatre, where they played to a full and fervent house, for one night only. Their last two ventures, completely created on the fly, given a few audience suggestions, were “Tennessee Williams UnScripted” and “Jane Austen UnScripted.” This time, it was “Shakespeare UnScripted.” And it was a hoot.

These terrifically talented, classically trained actors brought us the requisite Shakespearean girls dressed as boys (the wickedly beautiful Tracy Burns and comical Lisa Fredrickson); the oft-confused twins (both played by a side-splitting Paul Rogan); a controlling if bumbling father (funnyman Brian Lohmann) who makes an inappropriate if lucrative match for his daughter, in this case, Don Padrona from Spain (pratfalling Dan O’Connor, the group’s artistic director); the low-bred boyfriend of said daughter (the hyper-lyrical, pastoral metaphorical Floyd Van Buskirk); and of course, a plotting villain (wondrous Brian Jones).

They seem to take such delight in what they do, egged on by a crowd of wildly enthusiastic onlookers, and they appear to adore tripping each other up, ridiculing each other’s turns of phrase, relishing the surprise move or plot-twist, supporting each other with sound effects, and coming back, over and over, in the most hilarious ways, to the audience suggestions. They even brought in a rejected audience idea, a volcano (which didn’t appear much in Elizabethan England, but somehow, they made it work).

The more you know about Shakespeare, the more you’ll love what these highly skilled improv pros can do with a word, a phrase, an idea. It’s breathtaking. And stomach-grabbing funny. The group is due back in the fall with “Jane Austen” again (”the Austen fans are like Trekkies,” one of them told me). I put my order in for their newest creation, “Sondheim UnScripted.” Lohmann and Burns were especially adept at creating rhymes for their exit lines. I’d like to see that at breakneck, Sondheimian speed. Count me in!

PRESS & REVIEWS

“Very funny…Charming…Remarkably smooth.” – Backstage West Continue reading

“The most brainy, witty, dexterous, side-splitting comedy you’re likely to see all year.” – San Diego News Network.com Continue reading

“One of the funniest evenings in town…An amazing comedy troupe spins an entire play into comedy gold right before your eyes.” – Los Angeles Times Magazine Continue reading

“GO. The wit, charm, energy and creativity on display are delightful and entertaining.” – LA Weekly Continue reading

“These angels with dirty faces play well with pulp.” -Los Angeles Times Continue reading

“The evening’s humor derives from a savvy and seasoned ensemble who specialize in fashioning a unique, full-length play for each performance.” – LA Weekly Pick Of The Week Continue reading