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Chicago Improv Festival

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The third--and by far the most ambitious--edition of this annual celebration of the art of improvisational comedy brings together improv artists from around the U.S. and overseas. Festival producers Frances Callier and Jonathan Pitts have ensured that Chicago troupes are well represented: local companies participating include the Second City, ImprovOlympic, ComedySportz, GayCo Productions, Schadenfreude, and many more. Also taking part are former Chicagoans now based in LA and New York, including Dan Castellaneta, Mina Kolb, Avery Schreiber, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, and the Upright Citizens Brigade. There'll also be ensembles from New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Dallas, Boston, and Portland; the international scene is represented by performers from Japan, New Zealand, and Canada.

The Chicago Improv Festival runs April 25 through 30, with two to five performances per night at two main venues. The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, serves as the festival's main stage; tickets for these shows cost $20 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster (312-902-1500 or www.ticketmaster.com) or at the box office; main-stage passes cost $50 for three shows or $75 for all performances, and can be purchased by calling the festival at 773-394-3540 or by visiting the festival's Web site, www.cif.com. The Annoyance Theatre, 3747 N. Clark, hosts the festival's "Showcase" series; tickets for these shows are $10 (except where noted below) and can only be purchased at the Annoyance the day of the show. In addition, the TurnAround Theatre (home of ComedySportz), 3209 N. Halsted, will host the weekend "Improv 'Til Dawn" marathons. Tickets for these events are $5 and can only be purchased at the door the day of the show. In addition to the performances, the festival offers workshops and discussions led by Schreiber, Second City teacher Martin de Maat, Annoyance Theatre director Mick Napier, and ImprovOlympic producer Charna Halpern, and Fey will appear in a question-and-answer session. Call the festival for information on these events.

TUESDAY, APRIL 25

Dratch & Fey, J.T.S. Brown, and The Impromptones

The festival opens with the return of Second City alumni Rachel Dratch (now a cast member of Saturday Night Live) and Tina Fey (SNL's first female head writer); they perform an original program of sketch comedy and improv under Jeff Richmond's direction. Detonate Productions' ten-member J.T.S. Brown performs long-form improvisation under the direction of Second City E.T.C. company member Craig Cackowski; Reader critic Jack Helbig calls the ensemble's work "rich and resonant," adding: "What made J.T.S. Brown special was how carefully they listened, building on one another's work. Instead of going for the quick laugh, they created multidimensional characters and interesting situations that really pulled us in." The Impromptones are a Los Angeles company that specializes in musical improv, creating original songs based on audience suggestions. Athenaeum Theatre, 8 PM.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 26

GayCo Productions, Flaming Dykasaurus, and The Subverters

In the world of improv comedy, homosexuality used to be either a target for mockery or a guilty secret; now the love that dare not speak its name has its own special spot. The festival's gay and lesbian night features Chicago's GayCo Productions presenting a program of songs and sketches from its revues Don't Ask . . . Don't Teletubby! and Better Than "Better Than Chocolate," which Reader critic Nick Green called "as subversive as it is wickedly funny" in its original run. Also on the bill are Flaming Dykasaurus, a lesbian ensemble from Madison, and the Subverters, a team of local gay male performers. Alexandra Billings hosts; a portion of this show's proceeds will benefit the antiviolence project of the Horizons social service agency. Athenaeum Theatre, 8 PM.

THURSDAY, APRIL 27

The Groundlings, Brave New Workshop, and ComedySportz

The LA-based Groundlings, whose alumni include Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, and Paul (Pee-wee Herman) Reubens, celebrate their 25th anniversary with "custom-made satire and song"; the cast includes Mad TV's Phil LaMarr. From Minneapolis comes Brave New Workshop, which was founded by noted director Dudley Riggs in 1958--making it a year older than Second City. The group, whose alums include Penn Jillette and Peter MacNicol, presents a collection of songs and sketches. Chicago's ComedySportz offers a set of short improv games, played for laughs by two teams in competition. "[This] is not a show for improv purists: the audiences are too noisy, the pace is too fast, and the players sacrifice much of what's loved about improv--cultural exploration, unintentional magic, the surprise of self-discovery--for the sake of keeping things moving. But for anyone who gets tired of improv that fizzles like a wet firecracker, the hyper world of ComedySportz, whistle-blowing referee and all, is . . . funny and winning," says Reader critic Jack Helbig. Athenaeum Theatre, 8 PM.

Taint! and Crushed

Call this double bill "dinner and a movie": Actor-director Richard Knight and television chef Frank Janisch serve up a sampling of Taint!, their parody of dinner theater and cooking shows (see regular theater listings for description), while Rage Productions' Crushed is a fully improvised film featuring a cast of Chicago performers. Annoyance Theatre, 10:30 PM; tickets for this show are $5.

FRIDAY, APRIL 28

The Second City--Chicago Alumni; Mina Kolb, Avery Schreiber, Scott Adsit, and Tina Fey; and The Second City--Toronto Alumni

This show features veterans of Chicago's pioneering Second City and its sister company in Toronto, which spawned the legendary SCTV television series. The "Chicago Alumni" set features Horatio Sanz, Matt Dwyer, Jim Zulevic, Ali Farahanakian, and others. Mina Kolb and Avery Schreiber, mainstays of the company in the late 50s and early 60s, team up with Scott Adsit and Tina Fey, Second Citizens from the mid-90s. The "Toronto Alumni" contingent includes Andrew Currie, Albert Howell, and Jack Mosshammer. Athenaeum Theatre, 8 PM.

Sheila, The Real, Real World, and Yellow Man Group

Sheila, once the resident improv troupe at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park, "work[s] together with such joy that even the weakest improvisations are fun," says Reader critic Jack Helbig. The Real, Real World, an improvised parody of MTV's The Real World, was created several years ago at ImprovOlympic; now based in New York, it's directed by the Upright Citizens Brigade's Matt Besser. The Tokyo-based Yellow Man Group is a high-energy, bilingual trio consisting of two women and one man. This and all weekend shows at the Annoyance are hosted by T.J. Jagodowski. Annoyance Theatre, 8 PM.

Schadenfreude, Annoyance Theatre, and Pick-ups and Hiccups

This program features three Chicago groups. Schadenfreude, which takes its name from a German noun meaning malicious joy derived from the misfortunes of others, performs skits, music, and monologues; this performance, created especially for the occasion, will feature live music and other elaborate surprises. The Annoyance Theatre presents experiments in long-form improvisation; Reader critic Jack Helbig says that the performers "know one another so well it seems they can read each other's minds. More important, they feel comfortable and free enough to do anything onstage--[and] I do mean anything." Pick-ups and Hiccups, created and performed by Jill Benjamin and Seth Meyers of the Amsterdam-based, American-style improv troupe Boom Chicago, combines improvisation with scripted humor to satirize male-female relationships. "In this remarkably entertaining two-person show, [Benjamin and Meyers] don't just take suggestions--they interview the audience, picking our brains and then presenting improvised sketches about what's on our collective mind. . . . Adding to the onstage fire is [the performers'] combination of sexual tension and disgust with each other, a combination that also powered other great male-female comedy teams (Nichols and May, Stiller and Meara). Half the bits in Pick-ups and Hiccups are scripted, but it's the improvised material that shows this quick-witted duo to best advantage," says Helbig. Athenaeum Theatre, 10 PM.

The Playground, Brody Theater, and Improv Asylum

The Playground, an improv cooperative, presents a program by members of the up-and-coming ensembles it regularly showcases. Portland's Brody Theater is a young ten-member troupe specializing in long-form improv; Boston's Improv Asylum performs games and scenes. Annoyance Theatre, 10 PM.

Improv 'Til Dawn

This marathon event features 18 collegiate and semipro ensembles from all around the country, each performing a 15-minute set. TurnAround Theatre, 10 PM to 3 AM.

SATURDAY, APRIL 29

Matt Price & Mike Blieden, Ectomorph, and The Perks

Evanston-bred Matt Price teamed up with New Yorker Mike Blieden, and the two of them moved to Los Angeles; their specialty is sketch comedy. The local comedy troupe Ectomorph, once the house team at the now-defunct Improvisation nightclub, presents an evening of sketch comedy that features what Reader critic Jack Helbig calls "some of the most original material in Chicago." The Perks, also from LA, emphasize theater games and "mid-form" improv; its members include second-generation improviser Lincoln Myerson, son of Alan Myerson, cofounder of San Francisco's fabled troupe the Committee. Annoyance Theatre, 7 PM.

Upright Citizens Brigade, ImprovOlympic's Road Show, and Baby Wants Candy

This program features groups formerly or currently affiliated with ImprovOlympic, the Chicago improv theater and training center founded by David Shepherd and Charna Halpern that later became the home base for the late Del Close, the teacher and director whose experiments with long-form improv games helped steer improv comedy away from the traditional song-and-sketch format. The Upright Citizens Brigade, now star of its own show on cable's Comedy Central, returns to Chicago with a program of new comic sketches. ImprovOlympic's Road Show, created to perform for corporate audiences, features leading players from ImprovOlympic performing long-form improv. And the ImprovOlympic house team Baby Wants Candy is a group of "bright, energetic, seasoned performers [who create fully improvised one-act musicals" based on audience suggestions, says Reader critic Jack Helbig. Athenaeum Theatre, 8 PM.

2 White Guys, G.T.O.s, and Improv Bandits

ImprovOlympic's 2 White Guys is a duo that decidedly does not live up (or down) to its name: its members are white female Rebecca Drysdale and African-American male Jordan Peele, and they perform a program of comic sketches. The G.T.O.s--the name stands for The Girls Together Outrageously--is a five-woman sketch comedy troupe from Toronto. And the Improv Bandits are a multiracial trio from Auckland, New Zealand, who specialize in improv games. Annoyance Theatre, 9 PM.

Bang.Studio, The Transformers, and Noble Fool Theater Company

LA's Bang.Studio presents the long-form ensemble Stacey's Not Here. Also from Los Angeles, the Transformers (whose membership includes actors, directors, writers, and producers in the film and TV industries--among them Jonathan Stark, coauthor of the notorious "coming-out" episode of TV's Ellen) offer a nonstop half hour of transformations. Noble Fool, known for its long-running Flanagan's Wake (see regular theater listings), presents a program of improv games. The show is hosted by Bob Zmuda, Andy Kaufman's former writing partner. Athenaeum Theatre, 10 PM.

WNEP Theater Foundation, Four Day Weekend, and Slap Happy

Don't get confused if you see posters for Irreconcilable Nutz, "the world's greatest improv troupe," at this performance: that's the alter ego of Dallas's Four Day Weekend in this parody of bad improv. Chicago's WNEP Theater Foundation presents My Grandma's a Fat Whore in Jersey, a program of two-person long-form improvisation based on audience suggestions. "The fact is, creating and sustaining a cohesive piece for upwards of an hour is a monumental challenge for a group of ten seasoned improvisers, let alone two. . . . As demonstrated by the surrealistic mime sequences that frame the show's three improvised segments, [the players] are gifted physical comedians [who] have . . . book smarts and chemistry. . . . With more modesty and a less scattershot approach, My Grandma's a Fat Whore in Jersey might meet its ambitious goals," said Reader critic Nick Green when he reviewed the show's original run. And Toronto's Slap Happy is a trio specializing in long-form improv. Annoyance Theatre, 9 PM.

Improv 'Til Dawn

See listing for Friday; tonight's program features a different lineup of performers from Friday. TurnAround Theatre, 10 PM to 3 AM.

SUNDAY, APRIL 30

Dan Castellaneta and ImprovOlympic West's Opening Night: The Improvised Musical!

Second City alum Castellaneta, now known as the voice of Homer on Fox TV's The Simpsons, performs his one-man show Where Did Vincent Van Gogh, in which he portrays multiple characters (none of them Homer). Mr. Spelvin, the house team at ImprovOlympic's LA branch, "puts the 'comedy' back into musical comedy," a festival press release promises.ĂŠAthenaeum Theatre, 7 PM.

Quartet

Four improvisers from Chicago's ImprovOlympic--T.J. Jagodowski, Jack McBrayer, Jean Augustyn, and director Robert Dassie--perform an evening of "jazz comedy." Annoyance Theatre, 11 PM.

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