Well, that was fun. Like almost piddle-in-your-pants, slap-your-neighbor’s-knee kind of fun. I’m talking about The Improvised Shakespeare performance we saw last Friday night at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Just to set the stage (pun intended), I teach Shakespeare, I have Shakespeare art on my home and office walls, I’ve led Shakespeare tours in England and Oregon. I’m hooked. On the other hand, my partner Eric is not. A skier and cyclist, a tech sales exec, a dog lover, his first choice for a weekend activity is not a coma-inducing, iambic pentameter death march.
And somehow we both loved it.
The play combines the best of improv comedy with serious dramaturgy. Just five actors on stage come out in similar billowing white shirts and knee length knickers and ask the audience for a title for the play. Twins in Love was heard from the third row and they were off. For two hours with no breaks, these geniuses managed to pull off a conventional comedy with all the traditional tropes, a narrative arc, Shakespearean language, and a completely one of a kind, never to be repeated plot line. Unbelievable.
Since you’ll never see this particular play, I can spare the spoiler-alert and give you all the drippy details.
In the great city of Athens, Lysander and Lysanticles are identical twins attached not at the proverbial hip but at the shoulder and cheek, their fetal position. Cue lots of physical comedy. Lysander has fallen in love with Hippolyta (catch the Midsummer Night’s Dream riffs?), so of course, the only solution is for Lysanticles to allow his brother’s freedom and escape to the nearest deserted island. What else would one do? Hippolyta wants to marry Lysander but her evil father wants him killed. (Hippolyta by the way is played by the Thomas Middleditch, the awkward Richard of Silicon Valley. A huge selling point to get the boyfriend to attend). The couple plans to run away from Athens and end up on the Isle of Ionia (after a hilarious decision between that or Murder Island). Ionia’s big draw is its many sizes of shells – sounds amazing, right? There, Hippolyta mistakenly sleeps with the twin Lysanticles, and Lysander mistakenly sleeps with Hippolyta’s twin sister Helena, who we later find out were separated at birth by the evil father. Oops. But all is forgiven, and back in Athens, they couple appropriately, kill the father, and all’s well that ends well.
Amidst the prithee’s, thou’s, and aye’s, I kept looking over at Eric who was as astonished as I in how the actors not only invented a plot on the spot complete with Shakespearen green world, mistaken identities, and bawdy puns, but added brilliant rhyming couplets and classic Elizabethan colloquialisms.
The play ended with a roaring applause and a standing ovation from the packed theater. Shakespeare would have loved it. A performance that could appeal to the most literary intellectual and the skeptical novice. Well done, Improvised Shakespeare, well done.