The seventh edition of this annual celebration of the art of improvisational comedy brings together performers from around the U.S. and abroad; Chicago, of course, is heavily represented. This year's festival, the largest yet, is divided into several series--Mainstage, Showcase, Sketch, Solo, Duo, and Fringe--as well as an all-night improv session, a series of daytime "Lunchbreak" performances (presented in conjunction with the city's cultural affairs department), forums, workshops, and numerous special events. ¥ The Chicago Improv Festival continues through May 9, with events at five principal venues: the Athenaeum Theatre (main stage), 2936 N. Southport; Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont; the Loop Theater, 8 E. Randolph; Bailiwick Arts Center (loft stage and studio theater), 1229 W. Belmont; and the Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted. Auxiliary events take place at the Chicago Cultural Center (Randolph Street Cafe and Claudia Cassidy Theater), 78 E. Washington; ComedySportz, 2851 N. Halsted; and ImprovOlympic, 3541 N. Clark. Tickets to shows at the Athenaeum and Theatre Building Chicago can be purchased through Ticketmaster (312-902-1500 or www.ticketmaster.com) or at the box office; tickets to events at other venues must be purchased at the box office on the day of the show. For general festival information, call 773-935-9810 or visit www.cif.com.
THURSDAY, MAY 6
ComedySportz puts on a lunchtime show. Chicago Cultural Center, Randolph Street Cafe, 12:15 PM. Free.
MADtv Improv Jam, MADtv's Barinholtz and Meyers, and MADtv's Writers on Hiatus
The cast and writers of MADtv--including Ike Barinholtz, Josh Meyers, Stephnie Weir, Tami Sagher, Jordan Peele, and Keegan-Michael Key--perform. Mostly alumni of Chicago's improv scene, these brilliant comedians have the chance here to prove they're funnier, quicker, more original, and better informed than their TV material would lead you to believe. (JHe) Athenaeum Theatre main stage, 8 PM. $25.
Defending Your Life, Oddacity, Koko, and Five Man Job
WNEP Theater's Defending Your Life is a series of improvised hour-long mock trials that pick up where writer-director Albert Brooks's 1991 film--a warm meditation on paying one's debts in the afterlife--left off. A deliberately paced affair without romance or sappy sentiment, the show derives much of its humor from the lightning-quick interplay between the two performers playing the defense and prosecutor roles. (NG) Oddacity, from Hamilton, Ontario, describes itself as a "fiercely sexy improv troika." Koko bases its show on drawings by the audience, and Five Man Job is a trio from Minneapolis. Theatre Building Chicago, 8 PM. $15.
One Person's Trash, Hans & Robyn, and Ferrari McSpeedy
Comedy team Hans Holsen and Robyn Norris are both attractive young people, the former exhibiting a Wodehouse-ian aplomb and the latter an elfin allure. Most of their material is pretty clever too, and what isn't is redeemed by its quirky charm. (MSB) Noah Gregoropoulos and Linda Orr constitute One Person's Trash. Ferrari McSpeedy, from Minneapolis, promise "painful moments of honesty." Playground Theater, 8 PM. $15.
Andy Eninger and Adrianne Frost, Goga, and D.I.R.T.
Andy Eninger and Adrianne Frost are from Chicago, and Goga is Karen Herr and Karen Eleanor Wight from New York. D.I.R.T. comprises Celeste Pechous, Abby Sher, and Rebecca Drysdale. Playground Theater, 10 PM. $15.
Hothouse STC's Mayfly
Hothouse Spontaneous Theatre Conservatory brings "organic improvisation" from LA. Theatre Building Chicago, 10:30 PM. $10.
FRIDAY, MAY 7
The Williamson Playboys put on a lunchtime show. Chicago Cultural Center, Randolph Street Cafe, 12:15 PM. Free.
The Groundlings, Baby Wants Candy, and Improv Bandits
The LA-based Groundlings offer a slick, noisy brand of improv, punching taglines with the force of laugh-hungry stand-ups and painting in broad strokes the kind of well-defined characters guaranteed to win yuks from the yokels in the balcony. Those who love nice, long, slowly unfolding improvisation may scorn the Groundlings' insistence on entertainment for entertainment's sake. But there is a place for speed and mental agility in the improv universe, if only to show improvisers how to survive in LA, where style always trumps substance and if you're not louder, faster, and funnier than the next guy, you're nowhere. Not surprisingly, the Groundlings have provided a fertile breeding ground for comic actors since being founded in 1974. (JHe) Original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman emcees the show, and receives a Chicago Improv Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. Baby Wants Candy is an ImprovOlympic team specializing in off-the-cuff musicals, and the Improv Bandits hail from New Zealand. Athenaeum Theatre main stage, 8 PM. $25; proceeds benefit Gilda's Club Chicago, a cancer-support group named in honor of Second City alumna Gilda Radner.
Whirled News Tonight, ImprovBoston, and Inside Vladimir
The cast of Whirled News Tonight build their show on current events. The players exhibit a genuine rapport: articulate dialogue unfolds logically, swiftly, and concisely. (MSB) ImprovBoston's Agent Spy is an improvised spy thriller in which audience members are encouraged to use their cell phones to advance the action. Inside Vladimir, a former ImprovOlympic team, improvises musicals. Theatre Building Chicago, 8 PM. $15.
Schadenfreude, The Royal We, and The Traveling Susans
The sketch comedy group Schadenfreude takes its name from a German noun that means malicious joy derived from others' misfortunes. They're loud, funny, and outrageous, and they know their audience: hip urbanites in their 20s and 30s. One of the few troupes to take on local politics, this ensemble is simultaneously chaotic, smart, and funny. (JV) The Royal We, from New York, perform their political sketch show Does This War Make Me Look Fat? The Traveling Susans are from Denver. Loop Theater, 8 PM. $15.
The Mike and Duane Show, Storytellers Improv Co., and Jokyr and Jesster
Mike Ferbrache and Duane Freeman perform musical parodies. Vancouver's Dave Morris and Ryan Bell are Storytellers Improv Co., and Jokyr and Jesster are Joseph Kyle Rogan and Jesse Parent of the Utah troupe Knock Your Socks Off. Playground Theater, 8 PM. $15.
Totally Looped and Neutrino
Pushing the envelope has yielded fantastic results for Neutrino, one of the longest-running Harold teams at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade. Its eight members have a reputation for pulling off stunts: they disrobed in the middle of one infamous performance. And tireless experimentation within the Harold form led them to their biggest epiphany: videotaping a fully improvised 25-minute Harold performance on New York City streets, then editing and projecting it (with a three-minute delay) in a theater. This madcap fusion of nearly instantaneous filmmaking and anything-goes improv revels in the joys of spontaneous creation, and Neutrino's mastery of the form is simply awe inspiring. (NG) Totally Looped--featuring Second City vet Dan Castellaneta, known, among other things, as the voice of Homer Simpson--adds new dialogue to old film clips. Athenaeum Theatre main stage, 10 PM. $25.
Uncle Elaine, Tonto's Nephews, and Fatty Four Eyes
Uncle Elaine offers experiments in long-form improvisation. Tonto's Nephews are Native Americans from Toronto. Chicago's Fatty Four Eyes are "funny big men with glasses" who perform long-form improv. Theatre Building Chicago, 10 PM. $15.
Brick, Two for Flinching, and HomeGroan
Brick is a local sketch troupe. The three Second City grads in Two for Flinching explore "the odd nature of human behavior." HomeGroan is a sketch troupe from New York. Loop Theater, 10 PM. $15.
Karen Weinberg and Sapna Kumar
Karen Weinberg plays ten characters in her one-woman musical sketch show, Faker. Sapna Kumar's I'd Love to Margaret is a tale of lesbian love. Bailiwick Arts Center loft stage, 10 PM. $10.
Hothouse STC's ZHX Soundscape and Storybox
Hothouse STC does a show in total darkness. Storybox is a "stylized improvised exploration of story theater" directed by CIF executive director Jonathan Pitts. Playground Theater, 10 PM. $10.
The Oops Guys and Shame
This cabaret show features acts from Orlando and Washington, D.C. Bailiwick Arts Center studio theater, 10 PM. $15.
Brian Gallivan and Jamie Black
Brian Gallivan's Who Knew? explores "the surprising nature of love." Jamie Black deals with transgendered identity in Living Inside Myself. Bailiwick Arts Center loft stage, 11 PM. $10.
Johnny Lunchpail and pH Productions
pH Productions' pHamily tosses dysfunctional family dynamics into a blender with generous helpings of madcap character work and anything-goes goofiness. Long-form improvisation at its most intelligent, the show is sufficiently rule bound to provide structure but democratic enough to accommodate equal input from its rotating eight-member cast. The production rollicks along at a pace that speaks well of the troupe's collective sense of rhythm. (NG) Johnny Lunchpail promises viewers a "hot-rod joyride" in Chopped & Lowered, a long-form improv show about four guys named Johnny who work at a service station. Theatre Building Chicago, midnight. $10.
The Southpaw Sam McClowski Show
Southpaw Sam McClowski--the alter ego of writer-performer Samson Crouppen--thinks that TV talk-show hosts have become too namby-pamby. So he puts together "The Southpaw Sam McClowski Show," coming to you from station K-ASS in Bryan, Texas. He wears a Yosemite Sam Stetson, Roy Rogers shirt, sneakers, and a single boxing glove emblazoned with his initial, the better to accomplish his mission, which is to "kick ass." Many young actors playing a character so aggressively charmless might be tempted to let us see the innocuous performer behind the mask. But Crouppen never swerves from his larger-than-life portrayal of a testosterone-ridden male at his most incorrigible. (MSB) Playground Theater, midnight. $10.
SATURDAY, MAY 8
The Second City Almanac Writers All-Stars, The Williamson Playboys, and The Second City Detroit 10th Anniversary Alumni
See Critic's Choice. Athenaeum Theatre main stage, 8 PM. $25.
The Groundlings' Crazy Uncle Joe Show, Bevy, and Washington Improv Theater
Like summer-camp skits on parents' day, Bevy's sketches seem to be enormous fun for the performers, but for us they're too abstruse and tedious. (RLF) Washington Improv Theater explores "the extremes of human proximity" in Elbow Room. See listing for Friday, May 7, for information on the Groundlings. Theatre Building Chicago, 8 PM. $15.
Barrio Speedwagon, The Imponderables, and Triplette
The Lady Troubles is a sketch-comedy revue from Triplette--Rebecca Fox, Laura Grey, and Heather Simms--that combines playful observations on a variety of mostly female subjects with the slaphappy energy of a slumber party. Though the show lacks the biting commentary you might expect from a production purporting to look at 21st-century womanhood, it has a genuine lighthearted intelligence. The humor is based more on the characters than the situations, which can be dark. (KW) The LA group Barrio Speedwagon was founded by Joseph A. Nunez and Paul Vato of Chicago's ÁSalsation! Toronto's Imponderables present a sketch show that's described as "part Kids in the Hall, part Special Ed children playing in the sandbox." Loop Theater, 8 PM. $15.
Hooray for Mark and Ari, Improsia, and Lloyd Dobbler's Boombox
Mark Sarian and Ari Voukydis bring their show from New York's Upright Citizens Brigade. Seattle-based Improsia features the "free form improvisation" of Tristan Devin and Joel Dale. Mike O'Hara and Douglas Sarine from Second City LA promise "bizarre realities and truth" in Lloyd Dobbler's Boombox. Playground Theater, 8 PM. $15.
Jeff Garlin's Combo Platter and Larry Joe Campbell
Two one-man shows from big TV stars. Athenaeum Theatre main stage, 10 PM. $25.
Chairs, How We First Met, and Calibre: Gros
CarniKid Productions' Chairs has a premise so simple but packed with possibility it could pass for one of the original Spolin theater games. Here an ensemble improvises a one-act about a recently deceased fictional person, played by the loser of a quick game of musical chairs at the top of the show. He or she begins the evening with a short monologue reflecting on the person's life, and everything afterward flows from this soliloquy. But an elegant premise alone doesn't account for the show's success. Director Bina Martin has packed her ensemble with smart, quick improvisers who are usually willing to forgo a quick laugh in order to create comic characters with some depth. (JHe) Jill Borque and a team of improvisers act out the true-life love stories of couples in the audience in How We First Met. Calibre: Gros is a trio out of Toronto. Theatre Building Chicago, 10 PM. $15.
Troop!, 3 People @ the Cinema, and Whoopsa Daisy
Los Angeles sketch team Troop! got its start at Boston's Emerson College. 3 People @ the Cinema is a play without words performed by members of Improv Bandits. Whoopsa Daisy is a local sketch troupe. Loop Theater, 10 PM. $15.
Stacy Hallal and Phil Incorvia
Stacy Hallal combines improv with written material as she plays all twenty of the Humperdinks and their friends in The Humperdink Family Reunion. Phil Incorvia of Big Belly Theater in Portland performs his one-man show One Time. Bailiwick Arts Center loft stage, 10 PM. $10.
Imp., The Corduroy Rogers' Boxprov, and Inside Joke
Asaf Ronen and Karen Wight as Imp. use commedia dell'arte archetypes to create improvised clown vignettes. The Corduroy Rogers wear cardboard boxes with holes for their heads and arms. New York comedian-journalist Carl Arnheiter rounds out this experimental bill with his interview show Inside Joke. His special guest for the occasion is none other than Mark Twain; apparently reports of the writer's death are indeed greatly exaggerated. Playground Theater, 10 PM. $10.
Improv All Night
The lineup for this marathon of sleep-deprived humor includes two ComedySportz teams, the Hot Karl and the Improv Open Mikes; ImprovOlympic's Johnny Roast Beef; and additional Chicago groups American Dream, Jazz Hands Across America, Pimprov, and Obsessed. They'll be joined by Extreme Improv from Charlotte and Puny Humans from Cheyenne. ComedySportz, 10:30 PM-6 AM. $5.
Butch Jerinic and Sandra Battaglini
Jerinic's well-conceived autobiographical solo show, Growing Up Butch, recounts her experiences as the only one of three children in a Croatian immigrant family who turned out to be straight. Jerinic alternates monologues punctuated by one-liners. with sketches in which she plays both herself and her family members. The monologues are funny but slightly stiff while the sketches are hilarious, sharply observed, and fresh. Jerinic allows straight folks to get an insider's view of a gay family and gay ones to see themselves from the perspective of a loving outsider. (JV) In A Small Battalion of Soldiers, Sandra Battaglini employs clown techniques and video to examine her northern Ontario hometown. Bailiwick Arts Center loft stage, 11 PM. $10.
DSI's The Beatbox and Hothouse STC's Slew
Dirty South Improv's The Beatbox shows no signs of stagnation. Accompanied by a DJ, director Zach Ward's cast lose themselves in the music and the moment by riffing imaginatively on a single audience suggestion. Typically the themes explored owe more to the conventions of improv comedy than to B-boy culture. But the ensemble also rises to the challenge of the closing freestyle jam with a series of animated raps that tie a neat bow on all the evening's ideas. Though the show suffers from a few technical limitations, the group's enthusiasm for the material is infectious--and true to hip-hop's beginnings. Yo, anything that makes you feel this good deserves a big shout-out. (NG) The Hothouse Spontaneous Theatre Conservatory presents a sketch show. Theatre Building Chicago, midnight. $10.
Bob Wiltfong and Jill Bernard
Bob Wiltfong recounts his tale of walking away from a TV news anchor job in Anchor's Away! He's now a pretend correspondent on The Daily Show. Jill Bernard, who performs regularly with the Twin Cities ComedySportz, appears with her one-woman show Drum Machine. Bailiwick Arts Center loft stage, midnight. $10.
The Southpaw Sam McClowski Show
See listing for Friday, May 7. Playground Theater, midnight. $10.
SUNDAY, MAY 9
Bassprov, The Defiant Thomas Brothers, and ImprovOlympic's Carl and the Passions
Seth and Paul Thomas--unrelated blood brothers--are remnants of an era before political correctness; their show is part underground anything-goes comedy routine, part full-on happening. And the show's been running long enough that the performers' comic timing is exquisite, as in a crafty, rapid-fire "Who's on first?" exchange between a pot dealer and his client. The Thomas Brothers' staunch antiestablishment, nonconformist approach is best exemplified in a father's sage advice to his son: "It doesn't really matter if you kill somebody or forget to take out the trash." In their world both are a little bit wrong--but completely hilarious. (NG) Joe Bill and Mark Sutton play fishermen in Bassprov. The performance will possibly feature guest appearances by Second City veterans Mina Kolb and Barbara Harris. Noah Gregoropoulos's ImprovOlympic team opens the set. Athenaeum Theatre main stage, 8 PM. $25.