The Reckoning (Sunday) schooled us in great improv 

How to build an Ark in 45 minutes

When the five members of Chicago's The Reckoning stood side by side at the edge of the stage looking out at the crowd, they looked like a mismatched group. Maybe they were all strangers in line at the DMV and decided to put together an improv show? The only thing that was common to each of them was a confident smile, as if they already knew their show was going to kick butt. To a sold-out crowd on Saturday night at Theatre 99, they did not disappoint.

They took the suggestion of "church" and immediately conjured up a place of worship that was possibly Catholic but also seaworthy. Each of the five members added a detail to the church that used to be a boat, culminating in a cooperative, nautical version of the children's rhyme "Here is the church, here is the steeple..." Arms were everywhere as they created a miniature version of their church with arms entwined and hands gesturing frantically as the tiny ship fell apart.

Yet the first scene was merely fuel for the rest of the show, as the ensuing scenes evoked themes of religion, taboo, rebellion, and conformity. Oh, and it was all hilarious.

In one scene, Sister Rosemary, desperate to find who had eaten her "ravioles," stopped at nothing to get them back, even if it meant disemboweling the culprit. In another, two underwater parents worried about their "mer-kid," began to flirt with each other, as the husband recalled how when they first met, his wife was "quite the little scallop." In the next scene, an "almost affair" turned into "almost" outrage, and climaxed in an "almost fight." And then there was the father reading The Diary of Anne Frank to his son to inspire him the night before a big baseball game the next day.

The Reckoning work together so well that they can take the ridiculous and make it seem normal. And they can take the norm and throw it on its head. When an old lady tells a married acquaintance that it's OK to have a little fun on the side, the audience laughs because it's both funny and earnest. They build scenes slowly, unafraid that the laughs may not come for a minute or so, as they set the foundation and make us care about the characters. There was at least one genius line per scene, and it was always said by someone different. One sure sign of a good show: the cast members on the sides who are not in a particular scene were laughing right along with the audience.

As great improvisation always goes, the total piece was the star of the show, and each of the five actors took even amounts of time sharing the spotlight. Amazingly rich characters were balanced by the classic straight man, and the actors supported any direction their fellow members decided to steer. There is a reason these guys have been a huge factor in the Chicago improv scene for so long: unlike the Titanic, The Reckoning is one ship that is actually unsinkable.

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