Shakespeare’s Improvised Company at KenCen is absolutely stunning

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. Watching this band perform feels like witnessing a whole new art form: their work is a combination of improv comedy, poetry, comedy sketch and theater all rolled into one. I feel like I need to buy tickets for another show, so I have something to judge them. Just comparing them to other improv comedy performances seems almost unfair.

The work that these actors do is much more than a simple “yes, and…”. For those not 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, Elizabethan English (with only occasionally modern sounds). jokes, which I never felt were overused or relied on for a break in the more complicated language), and create a multi-act play of an hour and more . Regular improvisation is hard enough. I didn’t join the improv troupe at Georgetown. It is really hard.

In my (relatively brief) experience, most regular “long-form improv comedy” shows consist of three to five “scenes”, which, without a few reminders, are more or less disconnected from each other in terms of plot and characters. The Improvised Shakespeare Company took on the task of not only improvising each scene, but also creating characters with distinctive personality traits, satisfying catchphrases, jokes and arcs – who also speak in Shakespearean English. Oh, and they have to play these characters while playing a whole range of others over the course of the series.

Ross Bryant, Joey Bland, Blaine Swen and Greg Hess in The Improvised Shakespeare Company. Photo by Koury Angelo.

Almost immediately in the show, you find yourself 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 could possibly do that is if they had some sort of pre-established pattern to push the plot forward at the pace needed to have it play at the end, with all arcs completed, i is dotted and t crossed out, in an hour and a half. They have to have some sort of plan for what should happen in which scene in the show, have pre-planned characters who just adjust their motivations to the audience’s suggestion that accomplishes X, Y, or Z. What I’m ultimately saying, it’s, of course, this show is incredibly impressive, with all that “how did they do that?” charm.

I also think that, given that the troupe has been active since 2005, they probably taught themselves Shakespearean English as a foreign language and are now fluent in it. Translating a thought into a language in their head would be just too difficult.

I hope I am painting a picture of the absolutely breathtaking exhibit I witnessed at the Kennedy Center. I’m stuck in front of my laptop, puzzled like a mad scientist how they could have pulled this off. That’s what you’re here for. Go.

I have almost nothing to criticize. The show began with a soliloquy from one of the five actors (Ross Bryant), which was inspired by the phrase suggested by the audience (on this show, that phrase was “Just Say No”, which was, of course, the anti-drug advertising campaign in the 80s and 90s created and championed by Nancy Reagan). Perhaps my only real criticism of this show – and perhaps my only clue to its execution – is that the soliloquy (abstracted, in crude modern language, of course) boiled down to “Just say no to drugs. .. and love is a drug!” Here is a piece about love.

Greg Hess and Ross Bryant, Ross Bryant and Blaine Swen in The Improvised Shakespeare Company. Photo by Koury Angelo.

The piece itself was a look at the troubled romance between Helena and Ajax of the Ancient Greek (and Spartan…and Shakespearean) kind, and specifically recalled the phrase “Just Say No” on several occasions. Yet the slight noticeable drift from the original audience-generated prompt was barely noticeable until it surfaced in the post-show chat I had with the friend I went.

Sometimes there seemed to be more characters than I could keep up with (the five actors played way more than five characters over the course of the series), and the complicated language didn’t help get me back on track – but ultimately, I was getting too much entertainment value at any point from the whipped-up comedy for character confusion to become a real issue.

The show was funny, deeply technically impressive, and inspiring to me as a young comedian. If I have time next week, I’ll try to go again, so I can judge this band on their own. I really don’t have another frame of reference for the art form these guys have created, so that’s only fair.

Shakespeare’s Improvised Company is a traveling comedy troupe made up of seven musicians: each performance features five performers. The show I saw on Dec. 10, 2021 featured Brendan Dowling, Greg Hess, Ross Bryant, Joey Bland, and troupe founder Blaine Swen.

Duration: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.

Shakespeare’s Improvised Company runs through December 19, 2021 at Theater Lab at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets ($35 to $45), call (202) 467-4600 or drop by in line.

COVID safety: The Kennedy Center’s vaccination and mask policy is here.

The digital program can be consulted here.

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