Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Chicago City Limits

Chicago City Limits
directed by Joe DeGise II and Paul Zuckerman
with Joe DeGise II
Linda Gelman
Stefan Schick
Paul Zuckerman

Improv comedy can be very dicey. When it’s bad… well, there’s not much that’s worse. The group Chicago City Limits, however, is very good. They’re a troupe of smart and clever actors. We the audience are often laughing and nearly always smiling.

You know the form: sketches are taken from audience suggestions. We come up with the specifics of each one within a frame the cast gives us. Four actors presented a lively set of pieces on the evening I attended. To name a few:

The audience constructed a round of Jeopardy. We named the categories (such as poisonous Australian animals) as well as the answers. We also chose the professions of the contestants. The three actors in the scene created the characters with great aplomb and responded to the answers (you know the Jeopardy style, I assume) with ingenuity.

Another scene was named East River Anthology. It was based, of course, on Spoon River Anthology. The audience again named three professions. Actors spoke from their graves as the dearly departed who had aspired to those vocations. Edgar Lee Masters’ play is a great subject for an improv parody; the trio on stage mined its black humor.

An audience member - the first to shout out - offered an event from his day. The cast improvised a Broadway musical based on it. It started off with a lively duet and included a funny bit of mime in which actors tossed babies around affectionately. Toward its ending, however, came the only moments of the evening when the actors seemed to be stymied.

A volunteer from the audience joined the cast on stage for a sketch in which they all danced like their collective parents. It wasn’t exactly comic improv but it was a happy detour.

In the evening’s most successful scene, the cast acted out an impromptu play based on various theatrical forms consecutively as the audience called them out. These fine actors played out the scenes in the styles of Shakespeare, Kabuki, soap opera, and ballet (the last without any lines of course). It culminated in a terrific scene sung in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, quite skillfully improvised.

The show had some dull moments, inevitably. Nonetheless it was delightful. The performers’ skill is best exhibited when they improvise songs, such as in that musical, or when an actor in sunglasses sang The Chris Christie Blues. They create not only tunes but rhymes as well. And the unsung talent of the evening was the pianist - a fill-in musician, Danny Bernstein.  He can improvise in any style, from Broadway to Kabuki to G&S.

To the company’s great credit, they never refuse a suggestion no matter how difficult it promises to be. And they give themselves structures that offer much challenge and opportunity. CCL is cool comedy from an adroit company.