Free Associates, at the Ivanhoe Theater.
Ever since they opened their first show in 1991--the playful, intelligent Cast on a Hot Tin Roof--the Free Associates folks, directed by Mark Gagne, have made the fully improvised one-act parody their niche in Chicago's teeming improv scene. And in many ways As We Like It: Shakespeare in Your Face is created in the image of that first hit.
Once again the cast have steeped themselves in the work of the author (or genre) being spoofed. The night I saw them, the Free Associates improvised a Shakespearean tragedy, at the audience's suggestion, about a court fool Stiletto (the lanky, likable Joe Reilly) who couldn't get his "stiletto" to work. Woven into this story was an equally phallic subplot about sausages, sausage makers, and a good king (played with a dry, understated wit by Neal Pollack) who sighed aloud that "Sweden plays 'hide the salami,' and the people suffer."
Though no one would ever have confused the improvisation with the real thing--even the most verbally agile cast member never approached Shakespeare's word-drunk punning--there was more than enough inspiration and energy to keep things merry and light. As usual, the troupe's willingness to accept and build on whatever nonsense their fellow players spun out saved them from the tiresome plots and annoying dead-in-the-water scenes that doom lesser improvisers.