CHICAGO IMPRO THEATER
at Holy Covenant Church
THE HOLLYWOOD SQUARES NOT . . . AGAIN!
AND THE LIVE BOAT WITH PETER MARSHAL* AND FRIENDS
Free Associates at the Bop Shop
It takes moxie to produce improvisational theater in the altar space of a small church situated beneath the el tracks--especially on a late summer evening. You can close the windows to shut out the traffic noise, but your audience will swelter. The train rumbles by with maddening punctuality. And deeply satisfying as it might be for two performers to toss a baseball back and forth in the nave, the playing area is limited.
Chicago Impro Theater, now performing at the Holy Covenant Church, has plenty of guts, and a good sense of how to use the church space to its fullest advantage. Individually the performers--Jon Favreau, Jon Glaser, Dee Ryan, Rich Sohn, and Rebecca Weinberg--have personality and charm to spare. As an ensemble, unfortunately, they lack a shared sense of focus, dramatic tension, and onstage communication--at least in the first act.
Every week the group improvises on a new theme, among them "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Go West," and "Back to School." The show I attended was "Baseball." Such innocuous themes pretty much rule out hard-hitting, attention-getting social satire; it's up to the ensemble to give the sketches enough importance and immediacy to grab the audience's attention and keep it for two to five minutes at a stretch. They seem to have a hard time agreeing on what the scenes should be about, however. In the first sketch (located, by audience suggestion, in a bread shop and one of two sketches that had nothing to do with baseball), each ensemble member attacked the conflict in his or her own way instead of listening to one another and building the scene together. With five people straining to push the situation in five different directions, concentration became muddled and the ensemble rowed itself around in circles. The first act was full of this sort of floundering about, and while it was by no means painful to watch (Favreau and Ryan in particular managed a few one-liners worth a guffaw), it was ultimately frustrating and weak.
Luckily the ensemble pulled itself together in the second act, which introduces a unique and challenging device. The framework for this act is a 1940s-style radio show based on the theme of the week and fed by audience suggestions. Gathered around three microphones, the actors managed to improvise a 15-minute radio drama and sustain relationships between the radio performers, all the while concentrating on the "scripts" in their hands. It's the equivalent of riding blind, and in this case some of the magic that's supposed to attend really good improv sneaked in.
In the first act, when the actors were free to look one another in the eye, they fumbled endlessly. In the second act, when they were faced with common obstacles--"reading" from their transparent binders, keeping movement to a minimum, and rarely looking up at one another--something wonderful happened. They began to really listen to one another. Nuances were observed and picked up on. The result was true ensemble work, and a sharp parody of 40s radio-drama optimism. The second act proved that the Chicago Impro ensemble not only have guts, they have the cure for what ails them if they'll only listen.
Mind-numbingly dumb TV from a couple of decades ago has been making for crashing success on the nostalgia circuit lately. Quote some choice bit of dialogue from I Dream of Jeannie or Fantasy Island and you may be mistaken for a wit; hum the theme from Lost in Space and your social success is secure. Do it with an ironic glint in your eye and a touch of smug in your smile, and you can probably get away with charging five bucks a head and calling it improv.
The Hollywood Squares Not . . . Again! and The Live Boat With Peter Marshal* and Friends, presented by the Free Associates, attempts to ridicule the already ridiculous; the result is watered-down television without the benefit of remote control. When Hollywood Squares aired on TV, throughout the 70s, it promised us ticktacktoe with the stars and delivered washed-up sad sacks trapped in a neon grid. The Free Associates offer pale imitations of those pale imitations. Who really knows enough about Connie Stevens to parody her effectively? Why bother?
The Hollywood Squares Not . . . Again! has nothing new or interesting to say about the 70s; if the game-show questions had at least made some pointed references to the decade the show claims to be lampooning, it might have been watchable. But even that's debatable. The only thing worse than watching Rose Marie wrestle with encroaching senility is watching an actress pretending to be Rose Marie doing nothing at all.
The Live Boat is a parody of The Love Boat, another vehicle for aging stars and spaghetti-strap evening gowns. If you've never seen the program on TV, don't attempt this improvised version or you'll be as lost as the performers here often seem to be. If you have seen the program, I can tell you this much: the Free Associates' theatrical version is almost as good.