No wonder TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi have a cult following among improvisation students across the country. These long-form improv masters, veterans of Chicago's famed Second-City and currently playing in a sporadic but open run at the Barrow Street Theater, are wildly gifted and a joy to watch. Creators of "insta-plays from scratch" according to their press kit, the two actors simply begin an entirely improvised 60-minute long play the moment the curtain goes up. The plays do not come from audience suggestions (as is the case with many improv shows) but instead sprout from nowhere but the actors' vivid imaginations.
And what imaginations! The plots of these mini-plays almost defy explanation, as Jagodowski and Pasquesi switch in-and-out of characters and incorporate each other's tiniest suggestions in the moment of the scene and, equally, into the ever-evolving backstory of the play.
On this particular evening, the show began with Anita, a lonely widow, chatting up Ron, the maitre d' at a French restaurant called the Bon Vivant, by telling him she felt she had one more great love left in her life.
Soon on the scene came Marcel, a singing waiter with a soft spot for "sweet Anita," eager to reveal his recent and surprising discovery that the scallop special was not made with real scallops but with shark fin instead.
In the words of the cook who enlightened Marcel about the culinary switcharoo, "Tell me, from a scallop, how many scallops do think you get? One. And how many do you think you can get from a huge shark tail?"
As far-fetched as some of the situations can become, both actors do in-depth character work on stage. Such serious acting work provides a sense of emotional truth that adds continuity and lends credibility to their performances, and is often quite moving.
"Yes, she's searching for love," says Marcel when Ron warns him that Anita is on the prowl. "But who isn't? I am always searching for love. All day, all the time. Aren't you?"
Both actors are verbally dexterious, with advanced degrees in double-entendre and aural nuance. And while their humour veers more towards the absurd and existential than to the blue (a weakness of much improv), the performance I saw did feature a perfectly timed one-liner about pulled pork, jerked chicken and beef strogonoff.
What makes TJ and Dave such an exceptional experience is not only how quickly and subtly their minds work in the real danger of spontaneous live performance, but also the trust and easy camraderie that is evident between the two actors. I highly recommend that you catch them during one of their Barrow Street Theater stints.