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Published June 12, 2024

McCarthy: Improvised Shakespeare and gender

A smash hit improv group that clings to the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

This week, my family descended upon Chicago — where I’m staying for the summer — for some long belated togetherness. And if your family is visiting you in Chicago, there’s one attraction you simply must see: The Improvised Shakespeare Company. 

They really are amazing; all the hype you hear is true. Taking an audience suggestion for a title, the company then builds a Shakespeare play on the spot, using the language and style of the time. It’s fast, funny and mystifyingly impressive. But even if something is so niche and special, is it exempt from the cultural and social criticisms we would apply to anything else? 

The lights dimmed at Chicago’s famed iO Theater, as the thumping (and fitting) harpsichord-electronica music swelled, and a group of five men bounded onstage. Almost immediately, my mother leaned over to me and noted, “Hm, all men.” 

I had some background with this troupe, having heard and read about it, and knew it would be all men. But now, I realized with renewed lucidity that, of course, this is not the norm anymore — five white men onstage. Improvised Shakespeare is one of the only spaces where that not only exists, but also seems to be given a “pass” of sorts. 

To use a phrase from the Bard himself, there is a method to their madness. Improvised Shakespeare is keeping with the time they function in as an improvised comedy troupe. All of Shakespeare’s plays were in fact per formed by men, male and female parts alike. They are paying true homage to how this work would have been presented. 

This means there’s a great opening for that classic improv cliche — men playing women with high voices, flamboyant mannerisms, and almost no resemblance to any women you might know. It becomes a comedic device, these female caricatures, that end up trivializing women. Luckily, the show that we saw was, I thought, very reasonable in its male performances of the female parts, of which there were many. All in all, it seemed egalitarian, well wrought, and above all, very funny. 

But this made me feel icky — I was watching this group of men, and then I pictured having a woman or two in there, and some reflex in me went, “No! These guys are so great! The chemistry and sensibility is perfect!” I never thought that would be my reaction to an all male theater troupe. 

Yes, they’re keeping with the Shakespeare tradition, but are some traditions better left behind or updated? This calls to mind debates about severely antiquated books read in schools, and if they should be expunged from reading lists and curriculums, or acknowledged as part of our history. Is there a way to acknowledge without celebrating? Are some things all right to be a vestige of the past, like Improvised Shakespeare? Does absolutely everything need to be updated for a 2017 audience and culture, or are some harmless things granted a pass, if there’s thought behind why they do their work the way they do it? 

These are all questions I wish I had answers to, but are at the very least important to think about. And while you’re at it, go see Improvised Shakespeare, and see for yourself. What do you think?

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