CHANCING AT LUNACY: THE COMPLETELY IMPROVISED IRISH COUNTRY PLAY, Free Associates, at the Ivanhoe Theater. Right now Chicago is enjoying--or enduring--some half dozen Irish plays. Here's an antidote to the gorgeous blarney. The target: Brian Friel, currently represented by Seanachai Theatre's superb revival of his Translations and by his adaptation of Turgenev's A Month in the Country at Bailiwick Repertory.
In the Free Associates' seasonal parody, the butt remains Friel's self-destructive families. Like Ireland itself, these delusional clans are paralyzed by fate, the past, Catholic guilt, English oppression, psychological denial--and the playwright's blatant stratagems for failure. Calling what they do "conscious comedy," the Free Associates dog-paddle through a bog of Gaelic absurdities.
The resulting improv doesn't always rise above the more stupid audience suggestions. (Opening night was hobbled by food crises and the un-Friel-like title "My Nephew Stinks Like a Goat.") But the style, accents, metaphorical overkill, and lyrical gush were beyond reproach: this five-member ensemble transformed even the most boneheaded suggestions into crisp overacting, anguishing over a daughter who can tie her own shoes but can't win a man. Mary McHale was dour doom personified as the beleaguered Donegal matriarch pilloried because she couldn't make soda bread, and John Gawlik registered a lifetime's desperation as the son who dreamed of roping a goat. --Lawrence Bommer