Set aside your preconceptions about Shakespearean theater. It's not all pretentious, puffy-garbed players trained to speak foreign English at the Raised Hand School of Acting. IO Chicago's rollicking hit show "Improvised Shakespeare" is smart and knowing enough to delight Elizabethan drama fans and charming enough to win over the most avowed Anglophobes.
Director Blaine Swen brought the show to Chicago in 2005 on the heels of its smash IO West engagement. But true to the play's title, Swen assures audiences that the cast conceives every performance on the spot. In "The King of the Fairyland," a melancholy prince sits imprisoned in a tower, pining for the woman he loves in a kingdom that has banished all females. His lover and her friend, homely enough to inspire the night's slyest insults, don robes and beards and sneak a visit. Reunited, the couple plots an alliance with neighboring gnomes to depose the king and live happily ever after.
This is pop Shakespeare to be sure. Men play every role, working from a "script" generously sprinkled with rhyming couplets and catering in equal measure to our baser and loftier instincts. The modern tribute to the Bard mixes Shakespearean language and tone with heaping tablespoons of Monty Python-esque slapstick and wordplay. Dramatic purists might be disappointed, but I suspect the title alone will keep many of them away.
Quibble if you must about liberties taken, but this is indisputably great improv, fueled by smart plot development, stage chemistry and recognizable characters. Here's a goofy, sophisticated take on The Harold, a long-form exercise popularized by the late IO legend and Upstairs Theater's namesake, Del Close. The players support and challenge one another, letting situations and characters drive the story and its humor. Clever asides abound, but we rarely feel sidetracked.
The entire six-man ensemble shines, but two folks warrant additional praise: Jake Schneider for his effortless comic timing as a wise old man, a narrator and a Ferryman and Director Swen for putting the show's most clever stretch of verse in its most seemingly random character: Benny the Rhymer. When a throwaway line about rhinoplasty kills, you know you're in the presence of greatness.