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Chicago Improv Festival

Here’s who to check out at this year’s event.

Chet Watkins
By Jason A. Heidemann |

No matter how consistent a troupe is, in improv there are no guarantees. So instead of picking favorites, I sat through a ton of shows here and in NYC in advance of this year’s Chicago Improv Festival happening Monday 23 through April 29. Here is exactly what I saw:

The smarties in NYC’s Brick took the suggestion “eyelash huggy” and created scenes involving camping, public speaking and eye boogers that were alternately grounded and silly. Not everything hit, but these folks exhibited solid callbacks to earlier material and found smooth transitions when scenes were falling flat.

Based on the suggestion “Crayola,” four people in Junior Varsity unveiled interesting worlds while raising stakes and exhibiting solid listening skills. Although they sometimes struggled to find the funny, when they trusted their instincts they came up with gems like a scene about a couple on acid at a board meeting.

Fearless goofballs Chet Watkins weren’t as inspiring this time around when playing with the audience suggestion of “raspberry.” I would’ve liked more scenes and characters grounded in reality, although a recurring callback to cunnilingus was pretty hilarious.

Based on the suggestion of “pizza,” Philly’s King Friday wove the themes that bubbled up in its expansive opening to create scenes that showcased solid heightening and a consistent willingness to play at the top of its intelligence—like pokes at Apple and dating site OkCupid.

Toronto’s 2-Man No-Show moshed with the crowd at the top of its set, and that was just the beginning of an amped up show that created complex and exciting worlds in which the duo exhibited marvelous object work and consistent brainy smarts even when the premises were outlandish.

Hip-hoppers North Coast created scenes that effortlessly blended into beat-box numbers that were so clever it hurt. While some scenes could’ve been more grounded in reality, the group’s take on Jane Eyre and the art of journaling had me roaring.

New England never quite found its groove while improvising scenes based around the phony book title Eat Pray Hate. While the foursome managed to find the game in a funny scene set at a couple’s yoga class, others fell flat.

New York’s Magnet Theater has a winner on its hands with its Magnet Touring Company, which proceeded to turn the suggestion of “a hat” into a high-energy thrill ride that showcased marvelous group mind and lightning-fast wit. I’ll never think of gondolas, dipsticks or the board game Clue the same way again.

I couldn’t get into the Playground’s Improv Stand’s Up, a troupe that creates scenes based around stand-up routines. Although I like the form’s nod to iO’s Armando, the group seemed hesitant to fully embrace each other’s ideas and “yes and” one another.

Based on the suggestion of “cat box,” Messing with a Friend’s Susan Messing and guest gave us a series of short scenes including a tardy therapist and a blackout drunk. Messing’s like an improv surgeon who knows exactly when to transition a scene, and usually brings one of her favorite friends to the fest.

The members of Harold team Classy D used the imaginary country of Fregonia to give us inspired silliness like the “truth table of metaphors” and a scene that included a hilarious gender flip. They even broke into song!

Ben Jones goes it alone with Just Ben, a fascinating piece of solo theater in which he creates three simultaneous scenes and weaves in and out of each.

Deliriously energetic quintet Cook County Social Club wowed me with a recent round of rapid-fire, quick-witted improv that included a homicidal maniac on a rampage and a crafty soup vendor. Based on the suggestion “ribbon candy,” these guys created effortlessly funny scenes that were fast, furious, filthy and full of unexpected diversions and peerless group mind.

Chicago’s Claymore Productions took the suggestion of “tits” and slowly built compelling scenework that eventually paid off as the group found its mojo in original ideas like a pirate banana captaining a ship.

Out of Character, a group that improvises a continuous narrative based on a solo sketch scene, wasn’t in top form on my latest visit, but nevertheless wove together a funny little world about a delusional mama’s boy named Taiwan and his talking cat.

Kiss Punch Poem is a rare find, a show that mixes improv with spoken word to effects both uproarious and heartfelt. Based on the suggestion “exquisite corpse,” this phenomenal group of performers delivered a pride of lions on weed, a monkey who baptizes people and grounded scenes like an innocent flirtation at a grocery store. An improvised slam poem that tied it all together at the end was magnificent.

The Chicago Improv Festival happens Monday 23 through April 29 at venues around town. See the complete lineup at