Monday, March 31, 2014

Shakespeare Unscripted (Impro Theatre 2014 Production) Theatre Review

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.

Shakespeare Unscripted is directed by Brian Lohmann and Dan O’Connor. It is scheduled to run through May 4, 2014 at The Carrie Hamilton Stage, which is located upstairs at The Pasadena Playhouse. The address there is 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Street parking can be a bit tricky in Pasadena, so allow yourself a little extra time. And if you get there early, you can relax in the courtyard, which is really charming, with a fountain and slightly uneven stones.

(Note: I also posted this review on Pop Culture Beast.)

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