One way to approach the Chicago Improv Festival, in which 200-plus troupes descend on the city to perform, is to think of blackjack.
Blackjack, like all games of chance, and like improvised comedy, is no sure thing. Every show is a new hand, and success depends on the luck of your draw. But you can greatly increase the odds in your favor by playing the correct hands.
At the 17th annual Chicago Improv Festival, which runs Monday through April 6 at more than a dozen venues, including Stage 773, Second City, iO and ComedySportz, a handful of groups are the equivalent of an Ace-10 starting hand.
ASSSSCat: The four founding members of New York's Upright Citizens Brigade is one of the handful of groups elevated to exalted status among improv nerds. Its best-known alumna, Amy Poehler, won't be appearing at this festival, but its three remaining members form a nucleus that's as close to a sure bet as improvised comedy gets. Matt Besser ("Parks & Recreation"), Ian Roberts ("Key & Peele") and Matt Walsh ("Veep") perform alongside former "Saturday Night Live" cast members Horatio Sanz and Tim Meadows in UCB's flagship show with special guest monologuist, musician/producer Steve Albini. This closing night headline show is priced accordingly at $40, but hard-core comedy fans will tell you, you're paying to watch the apotheosis of the form. 7 p.m. April 6 in the UP Comedy Club at Second City, 230 W. North Ave.
Deep Schwa + Trainwreck: My pick for the best one-two punch of the festival. Deep Schwa is the longest continuous-running team at iO, forming back in the McKay-Fey-Adsit era of Chicago improv in the mid-1990s. Eighteen years together will fuse that group mind to one. Also on the bill is Trainwreck, the duo with deep roots in Chicago: Dan Bakkedahl was a Second City main-stager who left to become a correspondent on "The Daily Show," while Ed Furman was one of the brains behind Annoyance Theatre's long-running "Co-Ed Prison Sluts." 8 p.m. Tuesday on the Second City e.t.c. stage, 230 W. North Ave.
Jet Eveleth & Paul Brittain: I'll admit it. Jet Eveleth and Paul Brittain are two gorgeous human beings — and that's what gets you, because I've seen their show turn on a dime toward the dark and subversive, and there's something beautifully jarring about the dichotomy. Eveleth, who performed with iO's The Reckoning, is one of the best actresses to emerge from Chicago comedy's scene in the past decade, while Brittain was cast as a featured player on "Saturday Night Live" from 2010-12 (his "Sex Ed" Vincent character, which predates "SNL," remains one of the greatest short-lived characters on that show). 8 p.m. Wednesday on the Second City e.t.c. stage, 230 W. North Ave.
The Best of Chicago Improv: Here's a good place to start for Chicago improv novices. For $15, you get a more-than-generous sampling of three of our city's mainstays performing three distinct genres: The ensemble of Baby Wants Candy creates a musical on the spot, The Boys is anchored by Chicago vets Susan Messing and Rachael Mason, while Improvised Shakespeare creates a jaw-droppingly impressive show in the style of the Bard and delivered in Elizabethan dialogue. 8 p.m. Monday at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Workshops: The festival also includes a number of classes on improv, filmmaking and working in comedy. April 4-6 at Stage 773 and the Studio BE; register at chicagoimprovfestival.org
Chicago Improv Festival
When: Monday through April 6
Where: Multiple venues
Tickets: $10-$40 for individual shows, available from the venues or chicagoimprovfestival.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun