We were there: The Improvised Shakespeare Company with special guest Patrick Stewart

The great tragedian joined five verse-spouting Chicago improvisers for poetry, kissing, crotch-grabbing and more than a few laughs.

Patrick Stewart and the Improvised Shakespeare Company

Patrick Stewart and the Improvised Shakespeare Company Photograph: Ari Scott

“This is the opening night of our play, and—assuming a linear theory of time—the closing night of the very same play.” It’s a good joke for a company of improvisers who create entire Shakespearean plays on the spot; it elicited a snicker from Patrick Stewart, who was onstage preparing for the show, just like any other member of Chicago’s Improvised Shakespeare Company. The thing is, this is the only scripted moment; Blaine Swen makes the joke at the top of every performance. As Stewart noticed the crowd chuckling at his naïveté, he nervously laughed at himself. He caught on fast.

It wouldn’t be the only time the venerable tragedian would find his balance in the hour-plus of pseudo-Elizabethan mayhem and merriment. Some nights in the theater tend toward the ecstatic; from the moment the ISC cast took the Theatre 80 stage on this unassuming Thursday night, the audience cheering and Stewart’s grin vascillating between sheepish and shit-eating, it was clear this show would be one of them.

As always, the play’s title (Two Princes and a Spin Doctor) was provided by an eager audience member. Thankfully, references to ‘90s alt-rock jams were unobtrusive; the cast spent its energy unpacking the completely improvised tale of young Antonio (Stewart), his love Rosalind (Brendan Dowling) and not two but three princes vying for her hand. If the audience was concerned about what an untested player would bring to this tight-knit ensemble, its fears were alleviated by a solid, if bawdy, expositional scene with Stewart and Joey Bland. In a subsequent moment, Stewart reaffirmed his commitment to the show with an unprompted offer to give one of Swen’s injured characters the “kiss of life.” The notoriously squeamish Swen not only endured Stewart’s pucker, but danced a celebratory jig with all the other players immediately afterward.

Yes, Stewart not only did some kissing, there was trumpeting, curtseying, waxing poetic, crotch-grabbing and clutching the downstage drape in youthful anticipation. While figuring out where he fit in the scheme of things, Stewart never worked too hard to get his way; and, in a sign he’d really just abandoned his self-consciousness and joined in the madness, he trumped the cast’s last-minute machinations by revealing that his comic-hero character had a second face (identified as “the prince of darkness”) on the back of his head. In order to avoid confronting this fearful foe, Swen, as the villain, committed suicide.

Through it all, the ISC cast indulged Stewart’s whims and still exhibited the same joy for playing with one another that’s always been on display. Pieces of business such as a battle involving the “legendary” weapon of Cyprus—a 2” blade—and some unidentifiable foreign accents were well played. And when it was Antonio’s moment to join a traditional beauty contest for princes, in which he was told to remove his disguise and “reveal all thyself: weapons, body, mind and soul,” Stewart nimbly replied, “But I have no swimwear!” He caught on fast.