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Blaine Swen and his troupe of improv actors will turn a suggestion from the audience into a play with recurring Shakespearean themes at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Sheldon Theatre. (Photo by Alex Erde)

No holds Bard when improv troupe performs

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Shakespeare it’s not.

Or is it?

The Improvised Shakespeare Company’s past performances of “Macdeath” and “As Your Mom Likes It” were filled with “thees” and “thous,” comedy and tragedy, rhyming couplets, iambic pentameter and sundry characters that could — and perhaps should — have been created by the Immortal Bard.

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The Chicago-based improv company, which is coming to the Sheldon Theatre on Jan. 18, does its own creating of characters and stories in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan style.

The troupe takes suggestions from the audience for the title of a play that has yet to be written. Without planning, drafting or rehearsing a script, the actors improvise a story right in front of the audience.

“All of the dialogue is said for the first time, the characters are created as you watch, and if ever you’re wondering where the story is going. … so are they,” according to the company’s publicity.

“Any hour could be filled with power struggles, star-crossed lovers, sprites, kings, queens, princesses, sword-play, rhyming couplets, asides, insults, persons in disguise and all that we’ve come to expect from the pen of the Great Bard,” the press release explained. “Each play is completely improvised, so each play is entirely new.”

The Improvised Shakespeare Company was founded in 2005 by Blaine Swen. He told the Canadian press he got the idea from watching how audiences in the Windy City — home of the famed Second City comedy troupe — embraced improv as a story-telling narrative.

Swen, who had been working with the Backstreet Bards in California, brought together a new group of performers in Chicago. The actors have extensive experience in theater and comedy; most have appeared with Second City.

Explaining the troupe’s appeal, he pointed out, “Everyone has some experience with Shakespeare, whether they love him or hate him. He is constantly performed and everybody has read at least a little of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ or maybe just the Cliffs Notes to get by in high school.”

These actors do more than mimic Shakespeare. “With our character archetypes,” he told a Montreal newspaper, “we aim to make them very Shakespearean in that they feel very richly, deeply, passionately, and they aspire to things like deep love or ambitions to a throne.”

Reviewers — and audiences — have been just as richly and passionately impressed.

The company has been performing its critically acclaimed show every Friday night for seven years at Chicago’s iO Theater and also tours the show to audiences around the globe.

It has been named Chicago’s best improv group by two local publications, received the New York Nightlife Award for Best Comedic Performance by a Group, and recently was honored by the Chicago Improv Foundation as Ensemble of the Year.

Members of the company are constantly refreshing their connection to Shakespeare so that when it’s time to speak out on stage, the language is fresh in their minds.

Speaking in the language of Shakespeare becomes kind of a habit, Swen said. He told one writer, “You know when you read Mark Twain, when you put the book down you sort of think with a Southern accent? If you read Shakespeare and put it down, you sort of start thinking with ‘thees’ and ‘thous.’”

The Chicago Comedy Examiner called them “Quite possibly the most handsome, winning, smartest, wittiest, silly, talented, ambitious, intelligent troupe in Chicago. … They can do high-brow, low-brow, fast, slow, topical and historical. And have it all be funny.”

Or in the words of the Chicago Tribune: “The show channels Monty Python as often as the Bard, and frequently with sly-witted results.”

The Improvised Shakespeare Company will appear at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Sheldon. Tickets are $22.50 for adults, $14.50 for students. For information or reservations, call 651-388-8700 or go to www.sheldontheatre.org.

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