at Cafe Voltaire

Now that every comedy troupe in the city–from Sheila to Second City–is “experimenting” with long-form improvisations, it’s time for a new improv holy grail. Which brings us to serious improv, or, as a snide actor friend of mine calls it, improvisational tragedy.

The idea of using improvisation to create serious scenes is not new. Like long-form improv, it goes back at least as far as the Compass Players, if not into the primeval origins of theater, where all performance was created ad lib for the tribe.

Several of Chicago’s more progressive improv troupes–Ed, Annoyance Theatre, Cardiff Giant, Second City’s Lois Kaz–have recently begun pushing the envelope, yearning to create something more than mere comedy. And they’ve become adept at creating characters every bit as rich and compelling as anything to come out of a method-style workshop.

Earlier this season Jim Dennon, Ed’s philosopher king, put together a show called Dawn Toddy, in which four actors and two musicians (in violation of Second City’s tradition, neither of them was a pianist) collaborated to create a serious long-form improvisation with music. The experiment was daring, but on opening night it was so somber it made Long Day’s Journey Into Night seem like a comic romp.

The folks at Pavlovisation have attempted something considerably less ambitious–“experiments in unconditional improvisation”–but the results are more satisfying. Not that I’m sure what they mean by “unconditional improvisation.”

But their working method, as described in their program, seems clear enough. During their three-month rehearsal period the five actors in the show first developed characters, then the bare outlines of five serious scenarios involving them. Every night three of these scenarios are performed.

It’s always hard to gauge just how much real improvisation goes into an improvised scenario. (The plot line supposedly is set and the dialogue is not–but who really knows except the actor?) Yet judging by how capable these guys are of reacting with aplomb to stage mishaps (such as the folding chair that suddenly gave way under two actors in a make-out scene), they’re either good improvisers or incredible actors.

They quite easily avoid the twin pitfalls of attempting serious improvisations–backsliding into jokiness and creating the confusing, pretentious, intentionally murky work that passes for serious among immature artists. They’re even able to tell stories of great poignancy (in the strongest work of the evening a young woman decides, against her family’s wishes, to have her illegitimate child and raise him alone) and even create a frisson of horror (in the last piece a distraught jilted lover suddenly turns murderous).

This is partly the result of the improvised scenarios, which have the saving grace of one-acts created through improvisation–a rough, organic unpredictability that seems much more natural than the formulaic structure of badly written plays. Unfortunately all the scenarios also share to some extent the fatal flaw of improvised one-acts–the tendency to be a touch cartoonish and shallow. This is especially true of the second scenario, a mildly absurdist piece about a painter who wins fame and fortune with a magic brush that allows her to change the mind of anyone who criticizes her or stands in her way. The piece contains some truly sublime moments–as when the artist paints blissfully unaware of her painfully dysfunctional family–but the repeated shtick with the reality-altering paintbrush isn’t believable enough to pass for naturalism and the rest of the play isn’t fantastical enough to pass for magical realism, or even for the sweet imaginativeness of a children’s story like “Harold & the Purple Crayon,” which has a similar theme.

Nevertheless, even the weakest efforts in this show are performed with the sort of relaxed grace that makes me think director Vincent Mulvihill et al are on to something.