Ten Years on a Hot Tin Roof: A Free Associates Retrospective

For the past seven years, the Ivanhoe Theater–one of the most venerable venues on Chicago’s off-Loop theater scene–has been the home base of the Free Associates comedy group, which has carved a unique niche for itself with its improvised parodies of literary, theatrical, and TV genres. Ensconced in a tiny basement-level studio (once part of the Catacombs, a medieval dungeon-style funhouse that operated during the Ivanhoe’s heyday as a family restaurant 30-odd years ago), the Free Associates have been inviting audiences to toss ideas at them as the basis for spontaneous spoofs of Shakespeare, Sophocles, Williams, Mamet, Charlotte Brontë, Roald Dahl, and Brian Friel–not to mention the soap operas Dark Shadows and ER. With the Ivanhoe set to close at the end of this month, the comedy group–founded by Mark Gagne and now directed by Susan Gaspar–is offering a three-day review January 19 through 21 of its past productions as well as special performances of its current, long-running show, BS, which will move to the Royal George Theatre Center next month. All performances this weekend take place at the Ivanhoe Theater, 750 W. Wellington. Tickets range from $15 to $20 per show, with special prices for double bills; for more information, call 773-975-7171.


Brontë: A Solo Portrait of Charlotte Brontë

William Luce, author of biographical plays about the likes of Emily Dickinson and John Barrymore, penned this one-woman show about the gothic novelist. Liz Cloud stars in the Free Associates’ production. “Susan Gaspar’s direction and . . . Cloud’s performance emphasize the practical facts of Brontë’s isolation . . . to set off their picture of a lonely, passionate woman who might well welcome company. . . . Cloud draws on her well-honed comedic skills to create an intelligent, witty hostess. . . . The author of Jane Eyre herself couldn’t have asked for more,” said Reader critic Mary Shen Barnidge when she reviewed the show’s original run. 7:45 PM. $15; $25 for both Brontë and Blithering Heights (see below).

Blithering Heights

Audience suggestions provide the direction in this clever spoof of Brontë-style gothic romances. Even when the jokes flag, the actors’ accurate rendition of the genre’s often somber style and their on-target portrayals of the classic characters make for an entertaining program. 9:15 PM. $15; $25 for both Blithering Heights and Brontë (see above).


Move over, ER: the Free Associates’ burlesque of prime-time hospital soap operas employs audience suggestions for various medical procedures and personal crises. The resulting romp, an entertaining send-up that captures the fluidly stylish vacuity of the real thing, is “a textbook example of what a late-night show ought to be: silly, spontaneous, and wickedly funny,” says Reader critic Nick Green. 11 PM. $15.


Charlie & the Fiction Factory: Roald Dahl Unscripted

Roald Dahl’s children’s tales are the target of this show. “[The] troupe’s style of structured improvisation proves a particularly good fit with Dahl’s stories: both combine absolute sincerity with absolute irreverence,” said Reader critic Nick Green when he reviewed the show’s original run. 3 PM. $15; $25 for both Charlie & the Fiction Factory and The Greatest Story Never Told (see below).

The Greatest Story Never Told

The Free Associates are ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille, with their salute to Hollywood Bible epics. The actors invite viewers to offer their own commandments when it comes to plot, characters, etc. 4:30 PM. $15; $25 for both The Greatest Story Never Told and Charlie & the Fiction Factory (see above).

MedeaMorphosis: Greek Tragedy to Go

This show uses audience suggestions as the basis for a parody of classic myth, drama, and epic poetry. “What distinguishes the Free Associates’ improvisation is their adherence to a chosen form–in this case, theatrical conventions circa 400 BC. Their . . . premises are absurd. . . . But the show also delivers . . . an immediacy that’s downright moving, [resulting in some of] the smartest comedy . . . in town,” said Reader critic Mary Shen Barnidge when she reviewed the show’s original run. 6:15 PM. $15; $25 for both MedeaMorphosis and Chancing at Lunacy (see below).

Chancing at Lunacy: The Completely Improvised Irish Country Play

This show lampoons Irish playwright Brian Friel’s dramas of self-destructive families with the help of audience suggestions. Brogue rogue Joe Reilly directs. Reader critic Lawrence Bommer calls the show “an antidote to the gorgeous blarney” of Irish theater, adding: “The . . . improv doesn’t always rise above the more stupid audience suggestions. . . . But the style, accents, metaphorical overkill, and lyrical gush [are] beyond reproach.” 7:45 PM. $15; $25 for both Chancing at Lunacy and MedeaMorphosis (see above).

Back in the Shadows Again: The Lighter Side of “Dark Shadows”

This affectionate send-up of Dan Curtis’s supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, a cult favorite in the late 60s and subsequent reruns, does “a remarkable job of distilling the ethos of the series into an hour of structured improvisation. . . . Certainly a working knowledge of Dark Shadows will enhance one’s appreciation of Back in the Shadows, but the show also aims for parody that transcends bad haircuts and goofy dialogue: its deadpan irony makes it every bit as subversive as its source,” says Reader critic Nick Green. 9:30 PM. $15.


See listing for 11 PM Friday. 11 PM. $15.


As We Like It: Shakespeare in Your Face

The Free Associates bait the Bard, improvising a Shakespearean spoof from audience suggestions. “Though no one would ever have confused the improvisation with the real thing, . . . there was more than enough inspiration and energy to keep things merry and light,” said Reader critic Jack Helbig when he reviewed the show’s original run. 2 PM. $15; $25 for both As We Like It and The Scryptogram (see below).

The Scryptogram

The tersely obscene oeuvre of Chicago-bred playwright David Mamet is the focus of this parody. 3:30 PM. $15; $25 for both The Scryptogram and As We Like It (see above).

The Real Darren Stephens

This Darren Stephens is a real guy–a local actor not to be confused with Dick York or Dick Sargent (or Elizabeth Montgomery or Agnes Moorehead, for that matter–bless all their bewitched souls). He hosts a talk show for the stage, featuring interviews with real and fictional people, songs, and comic revelations. 6 PM. $15; $30 for both The Real Darren Stephens and Cast on a Hot Tin Roof (see below).

Cast on a Hot Tin Roof

The Free Associates perform improvised one-acts in the southern gothic style of Tennessee Williams, based on audience suggestions. “The cast . . . excel at counterfeiting Williams’s purple prose, delightedly indulging in the soul-twisting agonies of their characters,” said Reader critic Stephanie Shaw when she reviewed the show. 7:30 PM. $20; $30 for both Cast on a Hot Tin Roof and

The Real Darren Stephens (see above).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard Photography.