Cardiff Giant

at Shattered Globe Theatre

For better or worse, Chicago is an improv town. While many companies clearly approach the form as a cheap way to perform, others have developed working methods that yield more entertaining results. Two established companies with two different approaches to improv are now offering shows that are fine examples of both the possibilities and traps inherent in the form.

Cardiff Giant, true to the scale of its namesake, has developed a big idea for its new show, Hey! Whoops. Bang! Six actors, using more than 30 very loosely sketched characters, will attempt to create a five-part miniseries over five weeks, one show per week, using three suggestions from each audience. For ambition alone they deserve credit. Sadly, their first installment proved disappointing.

The main obstacle was the actors’ struggle to develop the characters. Each character is initially defined only by some personal trait. In the first scene of the first episode we met Dr. Thoron, a brilliant scientist and the victim of some side effect that made him horribly large, and his beloved assistant Debra, who’s unbearably sweet and innocent. They began the scene, using the audience suggestions of an ice factory for a location, a hand grenade as an object, and hard work as an activity. But things began to drag when the actors failed to move beyond the minimal quirky attributes assigned to their characters. As Thoron, Bob Fisher was affable enough, but when the scene failed to provoke laughter he resorted to self-conscious college jokes about Thomas Hobbes and PhD dissertations.

Thoron’s character, who soon became central in the story, remained only a caricature. Other main figures, such as Smoke, the femme fatale in his past (overplayed by Scott Hermes), were also built on forced humor. Here the joke was that a man was playing a sultry woman–and that’s as far as it went. Few strong relationships were developed, and that didn’t help move the story along.

However, the experiment was not without its rewards. In one scene Debra (Diana Slickman) chatted with an awkward admirer (Danny Thompson). As they considered a sinister shipment of ice that inexplicably turned up in her living room, they shared a rather touching moment that was also one of the funnier sequences in the show. It worked because the actors were clearly relaxed and listening to each other, working within the situation instead of struggling to be funny.

The overall mediocre results were frustrating, because Cardiff Giant has proven itself talented and imaginative, especially in scripted work such as Love Me and LBJFKKK. In all fairness, the first installment of such a bold undertaking would naturally be the most difficult, and the glimpses of invention do offer hope. But without a concerted effort to develop relationships instead of gags, the show could prove to be little more than a five-hour indulgence for six actors.


Spontaneous Theater

at No Exit Cafe and Famous Door Theatre Company

Bang Bang Spontaneous Theater, the two-year-old improv collective that has added Famous Door to its list of homes, may not be high on concept, but it delivers consistently imaginative and exciting results. The 11-member ensemble plays fast and loose with the blackout form of scene creation, in which actors move about in darkness, and when the lights come up begin the scene with whoever’s onstage. The format’s nothing new, but what sets this group apart is a strong sense of creative reciprocity.

In one of the evening’s funniest and most successful scenes the entire ensemble gets involved in a sketch that evolves from a group on a pier watching fish in the water to one of Poseidon’s henchmen planning an underwater coup d’etat. Another scene moves from a playful back rub to a scary scenario with echoes of In Cold Blood. That kind of progression wouldn’t be possible if the actors didn’t listen carefully to one another and weren’t willing to try out nontraditional themes.

The fact that the company’s filled with some of Chicago’s best actors (Tracy Letts, Michael Shannon, Tara Chocol, Reggie Hayes, Eric Winzenreid, and Paul Dillon, to name a few) adds to the winning mixture. But it’s their working relationship that keeps the audience’s interest.