It was less an instance of fortune and one more rooted in clever planning that matched up the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare with a performance by a troupe steeped in the Bard’s work.
The Improvised Shakespeare Company performed Wednesday night at the Walton Arts Center to an enthusiastic crowd. And, whether the audience members knew the Bard’s repertoire by heart, or had even just a few pieces or moments of his work locked in their memories, this production – made up on the spot – was a delight from beginning to end. Birthday cake was even served afterward.
Jenni Taylor Swain, the arts center’s vice president for programs, introduced this unique group. She recalled seeing them perform elsewhere and thinking how well they would fit into the arts center’s 10 X 10 Arts Series. She even quoted a couple of lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to start things off: “The actors are at hand, and by their show, you shall know all that you are like to know.”
And, show they did. Think about it: five members of the Chicago-based troupe travel to Fayetteville. They take suggestions for a name for their play from audience members they’ve never met. They create the characters and the storyline, using the style, themes and language of Shakespeare’s work. Their performance would then become the world premiere and, simultaneously, the closing night for the play created on stage Wednesday.
They are part of a bigger group that has been doing this sort of thing since it formed in 2005. Many of the members have experience with The Second City, the world renown comedy club/theater and school of improvisation that originated in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.
The members on hand in Fayetteville had particularly good camaraderie, and they showed how well they understand both Shakespeare and improvised comedy. When they asked for a title for their play, they got many suggestions. But the one that stuck was this: I Bite My Thumb at You, Sir.
And, with just that nugget of inspiration, they created a piece that mixed tragedy and comedy, one that focused on two lovers from feuding families. As in Shakespeare’s day, the male actors also played the female roles. The comfort level for the actors as they bent their genders for these roles provided many laughs.
They started off pretty heavily with plays on words related to the “thumb” inspiration, referring to the “tale of the fifth finger” and the “extraneous digit” in the prologue – a requirement for a Shakespeare-styled play.
Their plot became this: Antonio and Portia are in love. They come from families who are enemies; she is a Montessori. As has happened in many a Shakespeare play, Portia wrestles with choosing between her love for her family and her love for Antonio.
Then, Marissa, Antonio’s sister, gossiped with her servant about Antonio “consorting” with Portia. The servant steered the conversation into a hilarious commentary on genetics and philosophy, and remarked that these are topics that servants are known to discuss. Then, a rope and revolver were mentioned as possible methods for killing – along with the location of the conservatory – in a subtle reference to the classic board game Clue.
As Marissa planned for the Feast of St. Michael’s, some musicians came along to audition to perform at the event. Two lute players created and performed a song, “The Hill and the Bucket.” Then, two other musicians who play a flute called a fife challenged them to a battle of songs and then one of words. Their “air instrument” performances were hilarious. There was even a rap song about jousting. One of the fife players pandered to the crowd by working in a Razorbacks reference.
Antonio had a sword fight with one of Portia’s family members and killed him. As he died, he said the stain of his blood would never be washed from the dance floor.
This troupe took a 20-minute break for intermission, during which members surely regrouped to figure out the trajectory for the show’s ending. Afterward, Portia became convinced that Antonio had ulterior motives, and that she should try to kill him. The method was moisturizer made from the nightshade plant – because Antonio has exceptionally dry skin. And, nightshade only sounds menacing when pronounced very dramatically, they determined.
Horatio, who also was in love with Portia, pledged to kill Antonio. He had a problem with killing people by accident because he would fling his sword every time he pulled it from its sheath – eventually killing the last bald eagle in Italy. Meanwhile, Marissa plotted to kill Portia by poisoning the bald eagle because Portia is known for having a taste for eating endangered species.
Eventually, Antonio laid down his sword, claiming he would never use it again to kill any living being. Portia couldn’t go through with poisoning Antonio, and she eventually retrieved the poison from her bosom – an action that was hilarious since a bosom was nonexistent on this male actor.
Their love and trust of one another were renewed – but the levity didn’t last long. Soon, Marissa proclaimed her love for Horatio – to whom she was attracted because he kills orphans, possesses no fine motor skills and is generally oblivious.
In a strange sequence of events, Portia was stabbed in the neck; Antonio killed his sister, Marissa; and Horatio killed himself – through death by a sword boomerang. All that remained were two servants who were married by the priest (also played by one of these actors). Watching this troupe work was such a treat. Their minds quickly developed the next set of lines that were relevant and logical – and often presented in rhyme. They broke down in laughter at some of their own jokes because they just didn’t know where the other characters were going with the dialogue.
Afterward, the actors invited the audience members to visit them at the iO Theater, their home base in Chicago. Now, that would be a very good idea. The Improvised Shakespeare Company show was a one-night-only performance. For more information about productions at the Walton Arts Center, call (479) 443-5600 or visit the website at waltonartscenter.org.