North Avenue Productions

at the Improv Institute


Improv Institute

Whenever I get really depressed about the state of American comedy in this lowest-common-denominator television age, I take heart at improvisation and the solid support it continues to enjoy. Live, spontaneous, imperfect, relying on audience involvement–good improvisation is a genuinely alive and communal experience. The Improv Institute, a small storefront operation in an out-of-the-way location on West Belmont, is a particularly encouraging manifestation: with minimal promotion and hype, this nonprofit group has built up a substantial word-of-mouth following. The prices are low, the atmosphere extremely casual–patrons wishing a drink are welcome to brown-bag it, a refreshing alternative to clubs that use comedy as an excuse to push the bar–and the commitment to improvisation strong.

The Improv Institute is currently hosting three different shows every weekend. The early-evening slots on Fridays and Saturdays are taken by two different offerings by North Avenue Productions: Hogan’s Gyros, or I Never Feta Cheese I Didn’t Like on Friday and the wonderfully titled Superman! World Savior or Hermaphrodite From Hell? on Saturday. The late-evening slot on both nights is reserved for the Improv Institute’s own resident troupe.

Hogan’s Gyros is decidedly the weakest of the three shows. It aspires to a Second City-style revue format: a series of blackout sketches with a few sequences of total improvisation, plus a song or two for good measure. The cast includes the standard complement of improv actors: one all-purpose woman (part clown, part sex object) and several chumpy guys, including director-producer Greg Nishimura, an improv veteran.

The various sketches are built on decent enough premises: a child’s nightmare tour through “The Museum of Parental Warnings,” a visit to a yuppified Wrigley Field (with “Andre Frain” ushers), a controversial new movie that dares to question the divinity of a great religious leader–The Last Temptation of Elvis. In these and the other sketches some decent one-liners are strewn about. But the show as a whole suffers from bad timing, bad miming, and general banality of thought. The improvisers blow the scenes’ potential through sloppy thinking, a willingness to settle for easy outs (note the overabundance of gratuitous fag jokes, always the last refuge of a mediocre improviser), and imprecise characterizations. With some major overhauling, Hogan’s Gyros could turn into a good show, but work is definitely needed.

Superman! the other effort by North Avenue Productions, is still in the nonreviewable developmental stage; but judging from the preview I saw last weekend, director Evan Gore and his company are making an effort to steer clear of the problems Hogan’s Gyros has fallen prey to. This show has a risky edge that I hope will be preserved when the material is perfected, and the actors–among them two women, a definite advantage–display more variety in their onstage personalities.

The Improv institute’s own in-house show, meanwhile, is on an entirely different and much higher level. It offers one of the more wonderful comic experiences I’ve had in a theater. The level of intelligence is high (though the show’s not highbrow), the performance skills of each actor unusually strong, and the quality of interaction with the audience exceptional.

The performance begins with a company member taking a long list of suggestions from the audience–locations, news events, occupations, pet peeves, that sort of thing. The actors draw on this stockpile throughout the evening; but in addition to providing the performers with material, it clues them in to the sensibility of the audience they’re playing to and creates a reservoir of in-jokes that bonds the viewers into a group. This is a crucial aspect of improv–establishing rapport not only between the actors and audience but between the audience members–and the Improv Institute actors do it better than any group I’ve ever seen, including the audience-savvy Second City.

The troupe–only four players, which streamlines the process and allows for greater audience identification with each actor–then proceeds through a completely improvised two-act show. There are blackout skits, musical numbers, and numerous games. Those in the audience love it–as well they should, because much more than in any other improv show I know of, they helped create it. The ImprovOlympic, a frequently brilliant show, uses only one general theme suggested by the audience and relies primarily on its actors’ ideas; Improv Institute uses just about every suggestion the audience gives it, though not in the obvious ways. (On the night I attended, for instance, the Mike Tyson-Robin Givens brouhaha, one of the ideas tossed out by the audience in the “news event” category, popped up in a sketch about Prince Charles and Princess Di trying to liven up their marriage with a little S-M.)

The key to the Improv Institute players’ enormous success is that their comedy is character based. Because most other groups rely on gags, an improv sketch becomes an often-floundering search for the perfect one-liner. The frequently absurdist, even surreal ImprovOlympic is concept oriented, deriving its humor from the offbeat association of different ideas. But Improv Institute’s four fine actors–the Falstaffian Ross Gottstein, laconic Tom Hanigan, wired-up Jacek Bronis, and Diane Keatonish Patricia Musker, who is one of the best female improvisers I’ve ever encountered–focus on creating believable, if comically stylized, characters: they emphasize the innate humor in the different ways people move and speak, and their humor comes from an actor’s physical and behavioral impulses. So even if a scene is not working out as well as it should in terms of content, it’s still funny as a character study, a look at people’s interactions.

Music and lighting are crucial to good improv, and the Improv Institute is blessed with a superbly versatile pianist, Bonnie Shadrake, and a keenly sensitive lighting technician, Susie Robertson. Deftly blending process and product, the Improv Institute is a worthy inheritor of the tradition fostered in Chicago 30-some years ago by the Compass Players and Second City.