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IN THE WINGS
A Shakespeare Party, 6.3.2008In the Wings
Shakespeare in Boston, December 12, 2006In the Wings
Spoiler-Free Hamlet!, August 2008In the Wings
Turkey and Shakespeare, December 23, 2004In the Wings

BATS Improv, "Improvised Shakespeare"
Location: San Francisco, CA. Kind: In the Wings.
In Association With: Denise Battista

Last night I went on a blind date, of sorts, with a fellow journalist, of sorts. We met outside of BATS Improv (AKA Bay Area Theatresports), located in San Francisco's Bayfront Theater at Fort Mason Center, where we rode the elevator up to the third floor for a boisterous evening of improvised Shakespeare. Somewhere between the first and second floors, I knew that this first meeting would be our last. It seemed like a good idea at the time I agreed to this excursion, especially since BATS can tout acclaim in publications such as 7X7 SF and the SF Bay Guardian as the best place for a spontaneous date, and the best place for a first date. As we took our seats, I cudgeled my brain with just how these accolades could apply to me and mine.

The gods smiled upon me and permitted me to return my cudgel to Hamlet, poor boy, as both actors and audience scurried around the intimate, 200-seat theatre. I was immediately preoccupied with requests for "Shakespearean words" and "words that rhyme easily." People began shouting out their thees and thous, and the actors scribbled them on papers large and small. Adding bedlam to chaos, players engaged in an improv standoff onstage, defeat achieved by the loss of one's coxcomb. There was not a moment to focus on my calamity at hand, and for that, I offer my two hands to BATS.

The performance opened with a Shakespearean sonnet, with a door-sized paper stage left recalling the proper meter and rhyme scheme. The actors stood in a row, and one by one created a line, the next playing off the last. Their brains could be read on their faces as they spoke of summer and of autumn, and they did quite well until the ever-important rhyming couplet. A blank stare led to "da-da-da-da" being rhymed with "ba-ba." Hmmm. The lack of climax was a bit frustrating, but the rest of the performance was to die for. For those who were enjoying their dates, a sonnet-writing contest permitted ample wooing time -- the applicants' poesy read during intermission -- although some were more woeful to mine ear. Kudos to them all, just the same.

Here's how it works. The audience throws out some Shakespeare-sounding titles and votes for the best one by applause, while the actors, in response, create three separate storylines that somehow must come together in the end. Note that the end must offer a logical reason to state the title of the performance in order to be successful. Our winning title was "When Two Ends Meet." The first storyline involves a Baker (Barbara Scott) who bakes bellybuttons in a world in which they are a delicacy, and the cockney boys (notably the rough and tumble simpleton Rebecca Stockley and the hilariously low-brow Laura Derry) that love them. The second revolves around a Painter (Jenny Meyer), who is imprisoned for painting unreal things - namely a blue rose. As Meyer sits in her prison, she laments her life in response to fellow actor and BATS founder William Hall, who holds up cue cards of the many words the audience offered before the show. Meyer does a fine job using the words in her lamentations, and the audience is tickled to see their words on the stage. This storyline evolves into perfect hilarity when Meyer delivers a poor metaphor, to which her brother and the instigator of her imprisonment (Kimberly MacLean) replies in agitated frustration. MacLean struts and frets her hour upon the stage, trying to make sense of Meyer's metaphors. Metaphors like "Words are like a chair; a chair is like an eagle's wings spread." A positive response from the audience urges more and more bad metaphors, and thus more and more laughter.

The third story begins with a fight between two friends (Hall and Paul Killam), which leads to a duel, which transforms into a wrestling match, one of many hugs, and a drink at Needlepoint Tavern. None of this makes much sense in a review, but it made perfect nonsense upon the stage. The absolute gem of this troupe is Hall, who walks like John Wayne and strikes a flamboyant pose with every line. For some reason, Hall goes into a dazed convulsion anytime a player says "willy nilly." Does he do so because of this term's association with improv? (Willy nilly is synonymous with "disorganized" or "unplanned.") Is it because willy is British slang for penis? I question this because Hall, in whatever role he plays, would make Shakespeare proud by his incessant use of sexual innuendos. Perhaps it was a hat's off to good ol' Will, himself. Hall adds something quite smart to this troupe. He adds layers to some very quick thinking - layers that come from over twenty years of improv experience.

Perhaps the best part of watching good improv is seeing an actor laugh at himself. I'm reminded of people like Saturday Night Live's David Spade who at times could not help but laugh at the antics of Chris Farley. Watching Hall's face redden and his mouth crack a tight smile left me on the edge of my seat, but he never joined the audience in our grand displays of laughter. Loud laughter. Bellybutton-aching laughter. Laughter that carried us to the end of the show.

And what of the end? This production ends in metaphor. Meyer was slain long ago as a result of her bad metaphors. Her brother is still in a frenzy over their meaning and is told:

"Your sanity is at an end
And your brother's life is ended.
This is where two ends have met."

"When two ends meet, 'tis like a man in a chair spread eagle."

I haven't a clue what it means, but it was all well met.

As for my blind meeting, I was so happy to be so happily engaged in the performance rather than uncomfortably so with my date. We walked out of the theatre and into the night, agreeing that the show was wonderful. Considering our time together was over even before it began, we, too, were a matter of when two ends meet. A handshake and a quick parting sent us off in our different directions. Once out of earshot, I let out a sigh of relief. Whether icebreaker, or ice barrier, BATS is, indeed, the perfect place for a first date.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, BATS Improv performs every Friday through Sunday evening in San Francisco's Fort Mason Center. For more information, visit www.improv.org.

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