Playback Theatre Midwest, at Angel Island.

Yes, improv is a great way to generate comedy material. And yes, when it’s done by seasoned performers it can be almost as rich as more slowly developed forms of theater. But improv is also a great form of therapy, inspiring spontaneity and encouraging the expression of blocked feelings and thoughts–a side that’s often overlooked in the mad dash to put up a show, get noticed, get into Second City, get on TV.

But at Playback Theatre Midwest, improv’s touchy-feely side is the point. This 14-member company associated with the Chicago Park District uses improv games as a kind of free-form psychodrama. Every show is organized around a topic–the night I attended it was “caught with my pants down and other embarrassing moments.” An emcee persuaded members of the audience to reveal their most embarrassing stories, and then the ensemble reenacted them.

There’s something charming and satisfying about this. You learn that everybody plays the fool. And after a few reenacted stories the room definitely had a loose, easily amused atmosphere (but then the nonperforming members of the ensemble and their friends made up most of the audience). The cloying way the emcee, Tim Sauers, thanked each audience member for “sharing” was mildly annoying, but I left feeling relaxed and happy, though a little hungry for some real theater.