SHEILA'S INSTANT ODYSSEY, Sheila, at the Strawdog Theatre. This Hyde Park-based company may be the smartest, best-prepared, best-informed improv troupe in the city. But are they ready for the Holy Grail of improv, the fully improvised two-act play? Chicago's stages are littered with the bones of companies--among them Dawn Toddy and the late, great Jazz Freddy--that have valiantly tried and failed to create a full-length play out of thin air, on the basis of a single suggestion.
Sheila's last foray into long-form improv, the one-act Sheila's Giant Wall of Plot Twists, ran for two years at the now-defunct Organic Greenhouse. But it was successful not because the folks at Sheila knew how to tell a coherent story--many of Sheila's best improvisations, in fact, were surreal and relentlessly nonlinear--but because everyone involved was quick-witted and charming.
That goes double for this attempt at a two-act play. On opening night the story that evolved was nothing to write home about: flat, slow-moving, undramatic, and vaguely reminiscent of a bad Elvis Presley movie, it featured a military commander (Dana Allande) inexplicably called in to supervise a high school debate team at a tournament in Las Vegas. But once again the performers' wit and skill guaranteed entertainment even when the narrative teetered on the brink of incoherence.