The large stage at the Lee Theater, in the Touhill Performing Arts Center, was bare except for four chairs and a red velvet curtain covering the back wall. The front and sides of the audience area were set out in cabaret style with waitress service for food and drink. During the performance the five actors have no props (except the chairs), no sound effects, no costumes and basic lighting and yet they manage to keep you laughing through close to 90 minutes of performance.
The ISC was founded in Chicago in 2005 and has performed every Friday night at the iOTheater since then as well as touring worldwide. To quote their program material:"Based on one audience suggestion (a title for a play that has yet to be written) The Improvised Shakespeare Co. creates a fully improvised play in Elizabethan style." An audience member volunteered "chastity belts and beards" for reasons perhaps best kept to themselves. From this the ensemble creates a play about a prince of Verona who from grief over the death of his love makes chastity belts compulsory, leading to a series of events involving lovers, "mechanicals" (this time represented by belt-smiths and grave diggers), wise old men and, oh yes, some automatons (don't ask) that ultimately resolves itself in a joyful double marriage. The beards did feature at various points but the belts were the main focus. Of course, this is the story we saw on Friday night. If you go to their other two performances on Saturday, you will see something completely different.
The ensemble is led by Blaine Swen, the creator and director of ISC, with Joey Bland, Brendan Dowling, Jake Schneider (a graduate of Webster University's Conservatory) and Josh Logan. However, this is a true ensemble work with all actors playing a wide variety of characters and developing scenes. Each individual has developed a mechanism to buy time to think, whether it was repeated use of 'aye' or talking in a more measured way but none of these devices slowed the pace.
The group seemed to relish creating situations that made it difficult for others of the group, like requiring one actor to improvise "the singing, rhyming belt-smith code" to prove he was really a belt-smith. On some occasions their own enjoyment of a joke really left the audience behind or they would drop even a pretense at Elizabethan style language but these were rare occasions. The second half did start to drag a little in parts and the show might have been better being five or ten minutes shorter overall.
Despite their claim, a "Shakespearean masterpiece" it was not; however, an evening of entertainment, comedy and plain hard work by five talented actors it definitely was. By time you read this review they will have left town but for an evening of unusual entertainment you might want to catch them next time they are here or if you are in Chicago one Friday night.