BLITHERING HEIGHTS, Free Associates, at the Ivanhoe Theater. Most theatergoers are familiar with the improvised comedy sketch and the long-form Harold, but in Blithering Heights the Free Associates raise the ante by restricting their story to a single time (the early 19th century), place (the English Midlands), and literary genre (the gothic novel). Armed with a few audience suggestions, five improvisers tell a complete tale, all the while adhering to the conventions set by the sisters Bront' et al--no easy task when playgoers suggest dyspeptic heroines, hands-off heroes, villains with apothecarial hobbies, and servants named Fufufnik.
Romantics and academics need not fear, however. The Free Associates are comfortable with the confines of their period, resisting the temptation to anachronism and permitting no involuntary giggles to betray the somber milieu (though John McCorry's innkeeper had to struggle to keep a straight face during a culinary discussion involving "hay stew"). Adrienne Smith generated pathos as the orphaned Agnes Moore, whose illegible handwriting leads to her employment as a "cork" in the household of the hypersensitive Englebert and Isabel Smythe (Troy Martin and Jenni Lamb), while Susan Gaspar as Fufufnik calmly explained that the nocturnal screams echoing in the halls "come with the house." Assisted by Sandy Pierce's incidental music, the Free Associates somehow contrived a happy ending--a feat they've accomplished nearly every week since 1995. See for yourself how they do it. --Mary Shen Barnidge