I wanted to write something about the Improvised Shakespeare Company performance I was fortunate enough to attend last night, but I need to preface it with this proviso: I’m working on about three hours of train sleep (which equates to approximately 1.5 hours of normal human sleep). I rode the rails (sans bindle) for six-and-a-half hours yesterday, spent about seven hours in New York City, then took another six-and-a-half hour train back to Richmond at 3:00 a.m. The fact that it was worth it will become readily apparent in a moment.
The impetus behind this unorthodox itinerary came from a text-message conversation I had with childhood best friend (and occasional podcast guest) Joey Bland. He had recently been in a special show that was a joint effort between Second City and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Long story short, the star of that show was Patrick Stewart, and the event incorporated just a taste of improvised Shakespeare.
Sir Patrick was instantly hooked on the concept. Things escalated rapidly from there, to the point that, when I texted Joey to ask about how the Lyric Opera show went, he quickly alerted me that “It was awesome. And here’s the secret awesome part: We’re keeping it quiet, but PS lives in Brooklyn. We’re headed there to do one of our Shakespeare runs in NYC. He’s gonna play the show Thursday night. Unreal.”
I replied, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but, after Thursday, it’s probably all downhill from there.” This quickly led to many discussions about exploding heads and blown minds. I realized that the expense and logistics were irrelevant. I absolutely had to be there. I mean—I had to be there.
Flash-forward to the big day. I had done my part by keeping things a secret. Joey had been sending me occasional texts to fill me in on what was happening, still not believing himself that this surreal chain of events had unfolded in such rapid succession. Finally, around 8:45 (at which point I had been at the theater for a while, thanks to my paranoia), Joey wrote to say that, “Well, he’s here. We’ve been chatting for some time. Insane.”
It was really happening.
I’m usually excited when I go to see Joey’s shows, but I never get nervous. Last night, I was nervous. Everything had a different feel.
My entire thought process behind making the trip to New York hinged around one inescapable belief: That, whatever the cost, the first sixty seconds of audience reaction alone would be worth it. And, boy, was it ever.
I had confirmed with Joey during our original conversation that there would be no announcement ahead of time—meaning, that the lights would come up, and Patrick Stewart would just, you know, be there. I thought that was the perfect way to do it. And that’s how it played out.
I’ve spent the last 18 hours or so trying to come up with the right adjective to apply to the open of the show. I think the best one I can select is “overwhelming.”
I knew what to expect, so I was somewhat immunized. In observing the crowd, however, it was obvious that they just couldn’t quite process what they were seeing.
What you have to understand is that ISC is a wonderful, brilliant, and very specific form of entertainment. People who go to those shows are already invested in ISC. Even without a special guest, no one is leaving that theater with regret. But adding in a bona fide Shakespearean actor (and wildly popular entertainer) to the mix? Overload.
The reaction of much of the audience was roughly analogous to that of a child rising on Christmas morning and suddenly realizing he has awoken at FAO Schwarz—and everything in the store belongs to him.
After a lengthy opening ovation from an overwhelmed audience (with a couple of cast members who also seemed to be in that category), ISC creator / director / player Blaine Swen addressed the house with a modified version of the usual introduction. I actually thought that this was an absolutely pivotal moment in the show. Joey and I had been discussing the possible logistical problems of this particular performance, and I think we both had some mild concerns.
Blaine was able to put most of those fears to rest in one fell swoop with a pitch-perfect appeal to the crowd. Paraphrasing, his essential point was that, yes, it’s 2013, and, yes, we all have the ability to live-blog every second of our lives. But wouldn’t it be great if we could just live in the moment and actually experience something for an hour without worrying about Facebook shares and Twitter followers? His plea to resist the temptation to photograph the event or tweet about what was happening was thankfully (and respectfully) well-received. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how well I think he handled everything at the outset, and how crucial that was to the success of the show. As I half-jokingly said to him afterward, he managed to use the crowd’s own narcissism against them by pointing out that the show would be just for them if we could all merely control our twenty-first-century impulses.
The only remaining hurdle that Joey and I had foreseen was the opening suggestion–the jumping-off point for the entire show. After Blaine informed the crowd as usual that this would be the first and last time in history this play would ever be performed (adding, “Assuming a linear theory of space-time,” then exchanging a glance with Stewart to great comedic effect), he asked for the suggestion, and I crossed my fingers, hoping not to hear anything from Star Trek or X-Men. Although I’m sure the cast still would have delivered a superb show under those constraints, it would have begun the night on slightly awkward footing. When the audience tossed out the title, “Two Princes and a Doctor of Spin,” the final bullet had been dodged, and we were off.
The show itself was as great as ever, which is a testament to the insanely talented players who populated the stage—Joey, Blaine, Brendan Dowling, Greg Hess, and Ross Bryant. As I told Joey when I found out who was playing, this is a “Muderer’s Row.” Each of those performers has things he does individually at which I absolutely marvel, but what makes them so terrific is how well they can work with one another. Everything is second-nature, and, even with an outsider playing for the first time, they were able to bring him into the fold with minimal difficulty.
Of course, this was no ordinary outsider. What I think so impressed me about Stewart’s performance was that he basically has no improv background whatsoever, yet was able to hold his own with a group of the very best in the industry. That the Shakespearean half of the equation would be expertly delivered by Sir Patrick was a given. The improv portion was a bigger question mark, but Stewart erased all doubts right from his opening scene with Joey Bland.
There were many highlights throughout the performance. Every single player created memorable characters. Hess as a shady, lecherous Cypriot prince with a trademark two-inch blade. Ross as a cheese-licking French dauphin. Bland as a Spanish(?) prince with a background in medicine, apparently. Stewart as the protagonist Antonio, the shy but sympathetic suitor. Dowling as the the surprisingly-illiterate princess who was the object of all their affections. And Blaine as both the princess’ throwing-sash-wielding attendant and as the unexpectedly-dangerous titular doctor.
Memorable moments were also in ample supply: Ross Bryant’s opening and closing monologues, weaving in myriad Spin Doctors references while also doing a perfect job of book-ending the play. Blaine’s evil doctor of spin character being so horrified by the unexpected turn at the end of the play that he just kills himself. Greg’s Cypriot character also killing himself earlier, but having to do so in a most meticulous way thanks to his unique weaponry. I also love the little, silly things in ISC shows and improv generally, which is why I appreciate off-the-wall contrivances like a messenger not being able to read his message in the presence of a colleague from his profession, or Stewart’s Antonio correctly pointing out that a Greek prince and a Cypriot prince would basically be the same thing, or Stewart making light of an earlier minor name confusion by signing his love letter to the princess as “Antonio . . . parentheses . . . Groomio.”
Finally, my bias notwithstanding, I think the single greatest moment of the night from a comedy perspective was Joey Bland improvising a fairly lengthy song as the Spanish prince during the talent portion of an ill-fated pageant. The song incorporated not only the major plot element of the pursuit of the princess, but also the prince’s medical background in the form of anatomy-centric lyrics, punctuated by the house-destroying “IT’S AN INTESTINAL ROLL CALL!!!”
The night concluded with a raucous standing ovation for the entire cast, but Stewart in particular (of course). After the show, I was able to spend some time visiting with the cast, including Sir Patrick, as well as other friends and luminaries who attended the show. Patrick and his fiancee could not have been nicer or more personable, and it was obvious that the show meant a great deal to him, just as it did the regular players.
I observed Stewart in the wings at times during the show. His facial expressions and body language when he was off-stage were as telling as they were when he was on it. He was unmistakably having the time of his life, and, more than that, one could tell that this truly meant something to him.
Judged purely on its own merits, it would have been an excellent show. But the involvement of Patrick Stewart placed this particular performance in another category altogether. As I said to someone (tongue-in-cheek) afterward, “How pissed will the people who come tomorrow night be?”
The thing is, I’ve seen the ISC perform over a half-dozen times now, and I’ve never once been disappointed. Anyone who ever has a chance to see them should take that opportunity. And, remember—if you can go more than once, even if that means back-to-back shows—do so. They’re all unique. Which is the point.