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