Stepping Out

Shakespeare 'as you like it' on Valentine's Day

The Improvised Shakespeare Company interprets the spirit of the Bard


Treat your sweetie to an evening of comedy and couplets with those funny fellows of the Improvised Shakespeare Company (ISC).
The Chicago, Ill.-based troupe of improv actors returns to the Madison Theatre, at Molloy College, on Friday, Feb. 14, after a successful visit here last winter. Once again, they’ll regale Long Islanders with an all-new Shakespearean masterpiece as the five-person ensemble creates a fully improvised, often irreverent “new” addition to the Shakespeare canon in front of the audience — totally impromptu.
As those who are familiar with the goings-on from last year’s playlet (Richard in the Parking Lot) — or from ISC’s performances in Manhattan, Chicago and elsewhere — know, each show is created around an audience suggestion that is provided at the start (for a title for a play “that has yet to be written”). From there the hilarity takes off — in Elizabethan style, of course.
Each of the players is continuously brushing up on his “thee’s” and “thou’s” to bring you an evening of off-the-cuff comedy based on the language and themes of William Shakespeare.
And with the show falling on Valentine’s Day, some star-crossed lovers might get in on the action this time around, along with the assorted power struggles, sprites, kings, queens, princes and princesses, swordplay, rhyming couplets, asides, insults, persons in disguise. In short, it’s all that one expects from the pen of the Bard — and more. “You never know what to expect with these guys,” says the Madison Theatre’s Artistic Director Angelo Fraboni. “They’re not afraid of anything and they’re ready for anything.”
That may even include some Valentine’s Day silliness.
“There’s some much there to work with, from Romeo and Juliet to all those lovers in his comedies. If someone throws out a Valentine’s Day reference, the possibilities are endless. You don’t know where it’s going or where it will end up.”
But it’s an evening that will surely keep everyone on the edge of their seats.
“This is a must see-for anyone who loves to laugh,” Fraboni says. “You’ve never seen the Bard like this before.”
With their British-style accents, Elizabethan-era speech and numerous Shakespearean motifs to re-interpret in their inimitable style, the rotating ensemble of comic actors continues to enthrall audiences throughout the U.S. and internationally.
“Nothing is ever planned out or rehearsed or written, says ISC’s creator and lead performer Blaine Swen. “We never preconceive anything before a show because it takes away from the spontaneity. We’ve discovered as a group that to go along with the moment is far better than planning anything. So we are just as surprised as the audience with what is happening and once it happens it is gone forever.”
While it appears effortlessly unfold on stage, that seemingly madcap approach to recreating Shakespeare’s prose is well thought out and continuously practiced. Swen and his castmates take this business of riffing on the Bard quite seriously.
“We respect his words and his characters,” says Swen. “They are so richly emotional and feel so deeply that they translate well into improv, which needs strong points of view. We have found that the more serious we are about Shakespeare, the funnier it is. And the audience appreciates that we don’t just go for the gags.”
As Swen and his lively ensemble have done since he founded ISC in 2005, the group rehearses and studies with gusto. “’Studying is an ongoing process,” says Swen, “we are constantly working on our understanding of the material. Familiarity is essential for us. We meet with two professors from Loyola University who are guiding us through Shakespeare’s canon. We also take vocabulary quizzes at rehearsals to build up our vocabulary and go to see Shakespeare’s plays. We’ll always have something to strive for.”
The result on stage is a zany, yet intelligent approach to Shakespeare that has resonated with audiences.
“This has accelerated at a rate I didn’t expect,” says Swen. “We began with five players playing five shows, and now we have 20 players performing three times a week in Chicago and in New York (three times a year for a week of six shows), and we’re also touring 100 days a year.”
All the while, Swen and company are practicing and perfecting their mastery of Shakespeare’s wit and dialogue so they can
jump right in to their next gig. After all, it’s all in good fun. As Swen says, “we look a little more like Monty Python than Shakespeare.”
So, will love be in the air for ISC’s Valentine’s Day performance? Or will the show take an entirely different direction? You’ll just have to come and see for yourself.
And judging from last year’s response, a good time will be had by all. “The audience loved it,” says Fraboni, “and asked us to bring them back.”
You can be sure this won’t be the last you will see of the ISC at the Madison Theatre.
A workshop with the players precedes the performance, from 4-5:30 p.m. Open to all, but geared to high school and college students, participants will get an introduction to improv in this mini-class with the ensemble. Registration is required.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company
Friday Feb. 14, 8 p.m.
$25, $5 students. Valentine’s Day special offer: Purchase two tickets for $40 and receive a glass of champagne and chocolate. Tickets must be purchased in advance.
Madison Theatre at Molloy College, Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre.
(516) 323-4444 or