This is my first time experiencing the Improvised Shakespeare Company, and as I sit down to write a review of their performance, I have to be honest — I’m almost speechless. Seeing this group perform feels like witnessing a whole new art form: their work is a combination of improvisational comedy, poetry, sketch comedy, and theater all in one. I feel like I need to buy tickets for another show so I have something to judge them against. Simply comparing them against other improv comedy performances feels almost unfair.
The work these comedians are doing is far more than simple “yes, and…”-ing. For those not in the know, the Improvised Shakespeare Company is an improvisational comedy troupe — they take an audience suggestion and make up a comedy sketch on the spot — but they do it in iambic pentameter, in Elizabethan English (with only occasional modern-sounding quips, which I never felt were overused or relied upon for a break from the more complicated language), and create a full hour-plus-long, multi-act play out of it. Regular improv is hard enough. I didn’t get into Georgetown’s improv troupe. It’s really hard.
In my (relatively brief) experience, most regular “long-form improv comedy” shows consist of three to five “scenes,” which, sans a few callbacks, are more or less unconnected to one another in terms of plot and characters. The Improvised Shakespeare Company has tasked themselves with not only improvising each scene but also creating characters with distinguishing personality traits, catchphrases, running jokes, and satisfying arcs — who also speak in Shakespearean English. Oh, and they have to play these characters while also playing a whole gamut of others over the course of the show.
Almost immediately into the show, one finds oneself thinking: there has to be some secret here. I have worked in satirical writing, sketch comedy, and comedy podcasting, and I have to say: the only way these guys could possibly do this is to have some kind of preordained template to keep the plot moving along at the pace necessary to have the play finish up, with all arcs completed, i’s dotted and t’s crossed, in an hour and a half. They have to have some kind of plan for what needs to happen in which scene of the show, having pre-planned characters who simply adjust their motivations to the audience suggestion who accomplish X, Y, or Z. What I am ultimately saying is, of course, this show is bafflingly impressive, with all that “how’d they do that?” charm.
I also think that given the troupe has been active since 2005, they likely have taught themselves Shakespearean English like a foreign language, and now speak it fluently. Translating a thought to a language in their heads would simply be too hard.
Hopefully, I am painting a picture of the absolutely stunning display I witnessed at the Kennedy Center. I am stuck at my laptop, puzzling like a mad scientist over how they could possibly have pulled this off. That’s what you’re in for. Go.
I have hardly anything to critique. The show began with a soliloquy from one of the five players (Ross Bryant), who built off of the audience’s suggested phrase (at this show, that phrase was “Just Say No,” which was, of course, the anti-drug advertising campaign in the ’80s and ’90s created and championed by Nancy Reagan). Perhaps my only real critique of this show — and perhaps my only clue to its execution — is that the soliloquy (summed up, in crude modern language, of course) boiled down to “Just say no to drugs… and love is a drug! Here’s a play about love.”
The play itself was a look at the troubled romance between Helena and Ajax of ancient Greek (and Spartan… and Shakespearean) ilk, and called back specifically to the phrase “Just Say No” on multiple occasions. Still, the slight, noticeable drift from the original audience-generated prompt was hardly noticeable until it came up in the post-show discussion I had with the friend I went with.
Occasionally, there seemed to be more characters than I could keep track of (the five actors played far more than five characters over the course of the show), and the complicated language didn’t help me get back on track — but ultimately, I was getting too much entertainment value at all times from the whip-smart comedy for character confusion to become a real issue.
The show was laugh-out-loud funny, profoundly impressive on a technical level, and inspiring to me as a young person in comedy. If I have time next week I’m going to try to go again, so I can judge this group against themselves. I really have no other frame of reference for the art form these guys have created, so it’s only fair.
The Improvised Shakespeare Company is a traveling seven-player comedy troupe: each performance features five performers. The show I saw December 10, 2021, included Brendan Dowling, Greg Hess, Ross Bryant, Joey Bland, and troupe founder Blaine Swen.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.
The Improvised Shakespeare Company plays through December 19, 2021, in the Theater Lab at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets ($35–$45), call (202) 467-4600 or go online.
COVID Safety: The Kennedy Center Vaccination and Mask Policy is here.
The digital program can be viewed here.