Free Associates

at Kill the Poets

Improvisational comedy thrives on gimmicks. Even though the results are uncertain—perhaps because they are—the structure can’t be sloppy. It’s no surprise that improv games and contests like the ImprovOlympia carry rules as unbending as anything we’ll see next year in Barcelona. There are games where you can speak only in questions, where the setting changes the moment someone enters a scene, where a seemingly irrelevant cliche must be turned into a punch line.

And now there’s a new slant to Chicago’s most popular form of group comedy—literary parody. The Free Associates, students of the Second City Training Center, the Improv Institute, Boston’s Angry Tuxedos, and ComedySportz, devote the first half of their Thursday-night offering, Cast on a Hot Tin Roof, to a one-act improvisation in the style of Tennessee Williams.

Certainly Williams is fair game—as anyone who saw the Illegitimate Players’ superb The Glass Mendacity knows. Williams’s dramas are deliciously vulnerable, all the more so if you love them. With their heavy-handed symbol mongering, rhapsodic mad scenes, death-haunted nervous breakdowns, and melodramatic overwriting, they’re tempting to take over the top. Subtlety is wasted on Williams.

Though at times they overemphasize the formality of what they’re doing, the Free Associates have devised a very solid structure. They ask the audience to come up with three imaginary characters; each must be ravaged by a burning secret, an unrealized dream, or a “misguided representation” (e.g., repressed homosexuality). After choosing the crises, the audience has to invent a pretext that brings the three together; the setting must be some simmering locale “where you can contract malaria.” To complicate matters even further, the crowd picks two favorite Williams characters and assigns them occupations. (The cast is ingenious in working these familiar characters into the chosen crises.) After that the actors are given some time to change into appropriate costumes, grab props, and map strategies.

On opening night the Free Associates spun a tale called Blanket Full of Anger (the title was another audience contribution). Brought together by a 1958 Kappa Kappa Kappa sorority reunion at the torrid Hotel Flamingo soda shop in Costa Rica, the three made-up characters were Beau (Marc Francoeur), a man haunted by the discovery that his mother was secretly an Amway salesperson; Greta (Lynda Shadrake), a woman obsessed by the desire to play football; and Jeremiah Mae (Mary Collins), a big-hearted woman who falls loudly in love with Greta.

Into their tangled web barge Glass Menagerie‘s Laura Wingfield (Liz Cloud), now a sensitive shoe salesperson who can hardly bear to part with the footwear she sells, and Streetcar‘s Stanley Kowalski (Vince Kracht), a hairy-chested manicurist who gives brutal nail jobs and has the hots for Jeremiah Mae, which allows him to use his trademark lung power bellowing her name. (These two improvised some snappy exchanges: when Jeremiah comes back from the beach, Stanley salaciously remarks, “You’re all moist,” which she quickly corrects to “I’m wet, wet!” Stanley follows this clumsy come-on with “You’re always rubbing up against me,” then gets squelched by “I can’t help it! You’re always in the way.”)

Considering the target, Blanket Full of Anger ended on an uncharacteristically happy note—without a single act of cannibalism or even a hint of a commitment proceeding.

Despite a tendency to stall rather than risk jumping their lines, the Free Associates, under the direction of Mark Gagne, cooked up some convincing neo-Williams, replete with languorous desperation and armpit-scratching method acting. Mangling metaphors and indulging in flights of festering poetry, Cloud’s Laura was poignantly wacky in her mental dislocation. Collins vamped up Jeremiah with shameless hysteria.

Unfortunately, in the evening’s second half the troupe indulged in improv games whose rigid rules did not justify the results. Partly because the Associates went for the obvious, and partly because they were hesitant and unwilling to take any comic risks, whatever fun they had didn’t spill over into the house. In one game, the audience picks a famous detective and a criminal (in this case Kracht) who doesn’t know the crime he’s accused of. (When he leaves the stage, the audience also picks the crime: committing mime at a Hardee’s restaurant.) During his interrogation, Kracht guessed his crime quickly, but not because of any brilliant hints from his colleagues.

More successful was the “ABC” game: the actors carry on a scene in a shopping mall while making sure that each succeeding line begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Least successful was a skit about a TV show in which an aunt and niece review imaginary films with titles suggested by the audience; behind them the other performers act out “film clips.” These films, like “Dancing With a Bucketful of Brains,” were silly stuff—the Associates made no effort to spoof any specific targets. (You could also blame the crowd for some lousy suggestions.) “Celebrity Shrinks,” another game, has the actors trying to guess a phobia the audience had earlier chosen—an activity not worth the effort. A game of Jeopardy played by a steamroller driver, a kleptomaniac, and a gardener never built beyond the obvious running jokes suggested by the occupations.

Of course it’s always reckless to generalize about improv. For one thing, opening-night jitters take a greater toll than they ever do for a scripted play. For another, the audience and even the cast can be different from one night to the next: over this four-week run, guest performers will be brought in to play the games in the show’s second half.

The chief strength of Cast on a Hot Tin Roof (apart from the terrific title) is how well the Free Associates know their Williams. Though the troupe is just six months old, it pillages his plays—26 are listed in the program—as thoroughly as professional thieves strip a car. v