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Shakespeare gets the improv treatment with a comic troupe

At the beginning of every Improvised Shakespeare Company show at Largo, founder and director Blaine Swen steps up to briefly explain what is about to take place: a play, in the style of Shakespeare, created before their eyes.

He then asks for a title from the audience; somehow managing to pluck one out of the typically thunderous response. After the title is picked, one actor steps up to recite a prologue, all in unrehearsed rhyme. Recent shows ranged from “Straight Outta Venice,” which featured some terribly fantastic rapping, to “Survivor: Globe Edition,” which turned into a “Tempest”-like romp of romance and murder, along with a monster that beggars description.

The titles often suggest a play from the Bard’s canon, like the recent “Titus Histrionicus.”

“It situated us in a fraught, warlike room, so we got all those tropes and rhythms to pull from if we want, to be abandoned at will,” explained ISC member Ross Bryant. He, Swen and fellow troupers Greg Hess, Thomas Middleditch, Steve Waltien and Joey Bland talked over lunch and over one another, as they sat jammed into a booth at Astro Family Restaurant in Silver Lake. They shared the camaraderie borne of a decade of playing together.

Swen formed ISC in 2005 in Chicago, first asking friend Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”) to join him and then finding the rest of the group in the city’s rich improv community. They started performing five shows a week at the iO Theater and never stopped. ISC soon added road shows, performing around the country an average of 100 days a year. They used to make monthly forays to Los Angeles, but this portion of the group has now moved here for good, leaving another troupe behind in Chicago.

“At any given time we perform with five players, but it’s kind of a Menudo-style show,” Swen said. The others started teasing him mercilessly for the dated reference to the Puerto Rican boy band that regularly replaced members over the years. Except for Middleditch, who had no idea what Menudo was. Asked their ages, Swen replied, “Our manager says we're all 29.”

As far as the show goes, the only rule they adhere to is no figuring out anything ahead of time. “It steals the spontaneity,” Swen explained. “You’re not free to go explore.” They often catch each other off-guard. As characters assemble and reassemble on stage, the rest of the company take up positions on the sidelines, watching along with the audience — and laughing along with them as well.

“We’ve always been really unprofessional,” Bryant deadpanned.

Added Hess, who introduced himself as “Tenor, Menudo,” “We’re genuinely surprised by each other and find what each other does very funny. Sometimes it happens within a scene — probably not the best place for it to happen.”

But even as they crack up, they’re listening intently. And out of thin air, a play takes shape. A screwy one, no doubt, but one that hangs together somehow. “The secret of the story structure is there is no structure to it,” said Waltien. “When the characters are strong-willed and pursue the things that they want, the story takes care of itself.”

Even on their worst day on the road, when Bland fell 5 feet off the stage (out of the audience’s view), they made it work. After recovering in time to go back on, his first words were, “I think I’m OK. Who’s alive, who’s dead?”

Their fans are just as dedicated. Met outside a recent show in the line for seat assignments, Shadie Elnashai, 33, hadn't missed a show yet. He buys a block of tickets for every performance — 63 for a May show. Unable to explain ISC’s mad genius to his friends, he just started inviting people, telling them to pay him back as much as they think the show was worth. “And I never got stuck paying for a ticket.” Calling the troupe “utterly inspirational,” he added, “I’ll never be as good at anything in my life as they are at improvising.

At the Largo, where the troupe plays twice a month, the crowd has become a bit rabid in its adoration. At their last show, Largo general manager Michael Griffee started the evening with the usual announcements about phones and exits, adding, “The June shows will sell out so tell your friends now. Or don’t tell your friends.”

The lights went down and the screams went up. By the time the stage lights came up on five men dressed in lace-up shirts, rolled-up pants and soccer socks, the decibels were Beatlemaniacal. The energy rarely flagged from there.

As many shows as the ISC members have under their pirate shirts, “These Largo shows are pretty rare,” Middleditch said. “Even in the home shows [in Chicago] people don’t go that absolutely nuts. This is special.”         

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Improvised Shakespeare Company

Where: Largo, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. June 13-14, July 18-19, Aug. 30-31 (seating is first-come, opening at 6 p.m.)

Tickets: $30

Info: (310) 855-0350, largo-la.com, www.improvisedshakespeare.com

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