The talented folks of Impro Theatre and Combined Artform (aka the best improv actors in town) are back with their latest confection, Shakespeare UnScripted, and like its predecessors Jane Austen UnScripted and Tennessee Williams UnScripted, it adds up to two acts of improvised madness and merriment.  

As always, nothing is prepared in advance, and the troupe uses only a single audience suggestion to set the evening’s plot in motion.

On Sunday, an audience member responded to the request, “Tell us something that happened” with “It rained,” and a play that Shakespeare never wrote (but might have) got off to a smashing, make that a splashing start.

“I do splash, the splash of a broken-hearted man,” declared the Earl of Depford (Dan O’Connor), grieving the loss of his beloved Eleanor.  “She does not want wetness,” explained his friend Chancellor Thomas (Paul Rogan) before offering to do the Earl a service. “I shall go on a boat and fetch the lovely Eleanor.  Soon the waters will subside, and then her love will be prov-ed to thee.” Thomas vowed to build an ark and bring Eleanor back to Depford.

One of the cardinal rules of improvisation is “Never say no” to a suggestion or statement, so when in the next scene actress Edi Patterson was addressed by Henry (Stephen Kearin) as “Good Eleanor,” she knew immediately that this was to be her character’s name, and when he remarked, “Thou art weeping,” Eleanor preceded to weep.

“I must be a burden to thee to be amongst,” declared Eleanor with one of those slightly bizarre turns of phrase that might have seemed everyday in Elizabethan times. This set off a series of riffs on “amongst,” as when Eleanor’s mother (Michelle Spears) told her daughter, “I have missed being amongst you all this time.” Then, when Mother went on to praise Eleanor’s “brilliance,” her daughter replied, “I have heard from many of my friends that it is a strain to be amongst me for my brightness.”

Eleanor was soon presented with a stack of rain-drenched letters from a suitor, and though the ink on them had been washed away, she declared that she could smell from whence the letters came from the scent of their sealing wax.

Lisa Frecrickson next appeared as Pappy, a would-be writer building a wall out of stone “until I am found dead surrounded by words.” Thomas arrived on his ark, sailing up to her and demanding, “Good lady, how far am I from Penge?” This quickly improvised destination prompted Pappy to reveal that she was from a place called “Such…intown.”  Thomas invited Pappy to accompany him on his voyage, thereby giving her a real story to write, and off they sailed.

Back in Penge, Lord Richmond (O’Connor again, sporting a jacket and a deeper voice to distinguish the character from the Earl of Depford) arrived seeking the hand of Eleanor. His goal?  To unite Richmond and Penge and “make it Richmond-Penge.” Eleanor’s mother bade him woo her daughter “with poetry and not with swordplay.”

Meanwhile, Henry was nursing his unrequited love for Eleanor.  “Thou art not some annual flower,” he told her. “Thou art a perennial.”  Sadly for Henry, Eleanor’s feelings lay elsewhere, torn between Lord Richmond and the Earl of Depford, as alike as identical twins.

Act Two included a challenge to a duel, a bout of madness (indicated by flailing, prompting the command “Flail not!), and an appearance by Lord Richmond looking exactly like the Earl of Depford (since O’Connor had forgotten to don his jacket). “I cannot find my cloak,” improvised the actor without batting an eye. 

A duel between the two rivals (but fought by a single actor) preceded the requisite happy ending, this being Shakespeare in comedic rather than tragedic mode, despite the appearance of a poisonous tincture in Act Two. 

Part of the fun of Shakespeare UnScripted is hearing what unique turns of phrase the improv actors will come up with, gems like “a bollywogger of a sleep,” “I see some wooing is a-happening here,” “a man of Chancellordom,” “a troll-like author,” and (when one character found himself wrestling with Henry’s corpse) “Rigor has set in.”  (Fortunately, Henry returned to life a la Lazarus.)

Sadly, Sunday’s tale of rivalry and chivalry will ne’r be repeated, each Shakespeare UnScripted play developing entirely from scratch.  What will happen again (and again) throughout the remaining weeks of the run is a hilariously imaginative and drolly performed bit of stage magic brought to life by the improv geniuses of Impro Theatre.

Kudos to directors Brian Lohmann and O’Connor and their band of merry men and women, to Ruben Vernier’s brilliantly improvised lighting and sound, and to Sandra Burns’ costumes.

Shakespeare UnScripted is so much fun, you’ll likely want to return again with friends in tow.  Rave reviews and word-of-mouth are likely to make Shakespeare UnScripted yet another smash success for Impro Theatre and Combined Artform. Methinks the Bard himself would approve.

Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 24, 2010

Photos: Jim Sabo
Only Kearin (bottom photo left) appeared in Sunday’s performance.

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