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What Not To Miss At This Year's Chicago Improv Festival

By Sophie Lucido Johnson in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 29, 2016 6:00PM

Photo courtesy Chicago Improv Festival. Pictured performing at CIF17 is The Boys (Chicago). L to R (clockwise) is Rachael Mason, Susan Messing and Craig Uhlir. Photo by John Abbott.

As you board the train to head to work on Monday, you'll be confronted with this annual question: Is that guy who appears to be eating an invisible sandwich crazy, or is he practicing for his show at the Chicago Improv Festival? The Chicago Improv Festival is the longest-running and largest improv festival in the world—which makes sense, because Chicago is where prop-less, script-less comedy was born. For its 19th year, performers will flock from all corners of the world next week to have arguments about bologna while pretending to drive cars in hopes of becoming the next Tina Fey or Steven Colbert.

If you've gone to a few shows, you know that when improv is good, it's fantastically (almost unbelievably) hilarious; but when it's bad, it is just short of physically painful to watch. (To be fair, the Chicago Improv Fest is extremely competitive to get into; organizers do a pretty good job of weeding out unpolished groups.) With more than 170 acts putting on more than 100 shows in more than 20 venues, how can an improv neophyte be sure to catch the absolutely unmissable stuff? Don't worry: We've got you covered. Here are some acts that are guaranteed to tickle even the most steadfast skeptics.

Woke AF: This team is playing on a show alongside two other magnificent teams (Children of a Lesser God and Virgin Daiquiri), and all three groups are all-female. Woke AF features members of Second City's Bob Curry Fellowship — they're five African American ladies who know how to put on a show. "Woke AF" is expectedly unapologetic, feminist, political, and hilarious. All three teams are long-hailed and will come to the stage ready to throw down: These are women who spit in the face of that whole "girls aren't funny" thing that only idiots have ever said anyway.

WHEN: May 2, 8 p.m.
WHERE: iO - Mission Theater,1501 N. Kingsbury St.; (312) 929-2401
COST: $20

Trew + 2: Chris Trew is a bit of a renaissance man from an alternate universe. He has a gigantic, wiry beard (he also sells his own beard oil); writes semi-serious sports columns for various websites and newspapers; is the host of the touring Air Sex tournament (it is what you think it is); and is a somewhat well-known wrestler. He also opened an improv theater in New Orleans with his wife a few years ago, and they have created quite a stir there with their unique brand of improv. At Chicago Improv Fest, Trew will bring two strangers from the audience on stage with him to perform a full improv comedy show. It sounds like it wouldn't work, but Trew is good enough (and weird enough) that it does. Chris Trew never puts on the same show twice, and he's a hustling, hard-working comedian who is, in a word, unforgettable.

WHEN: May 3, 9:30 p.m.
WHERE: Annoyance Theater - Small, 851 W. Belmont Ave., Floor 2; (773) 697-9693
COST: $5

3peat and Chris Redd: If there is one Chicago team you must see, it's 3peat. They're quick-witted but unafraid to dig into serious subject matter, and they do improv so fast-paced that by the time your brain registers one joke, the team will have already made three more. Regular team members Nnamdi Ngwe and Patrick Rowland are playing this time with Los Angeles-based improvisor and comedian Chris Redd, who's done some work on "Empire" and is blowing up in the L.A. stand-up scene. Seriously: don't miss this one. Also performing at this show will be the lauded comedy duo CORY!

WHEN: May 4, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Second City, 1608 N Wells St.; (312) 337-3992
COST: $25

Messing With A Friend: Susan Messing is one of the greatest improvisers alive, and she lives here in Chicago where she performs all the time and all three of Chicago's major comedy theaters. She does this show regularly throughout the year, but it is never not great. She's a master of the trade who mixes TIGHT character work with a deadpan sense of whimsy that is unmatched by any improviser in the city. It doesn't hurt that she's a veteran in the community who has been on the Second City mainstage since the '90s. For Chicago Improv Festival she'll be performing alongside TWO friends: the very funny Rachael Mason and TJ Shanoff.

WHEN: May 5, 10:30 p.m.
WHERE: Annoyance Theater - Main, 851 W. Belmont Ave., Floor 2; (773) 697-9693
COST: $5

Moist Theatre:
Maybe people don't really think of Canada as having a huge comedy scene, but that's because Americans don't like to acknowledge anything about Canada unless it's Drake. Moist Theatre is a Toronto-based improv group who put on shows that are as polished and shiny as improv can get. They're experienced playing at festivals all over Canada, and they have a website that resembles an official fan page for a 1990s boy band. If their YouTube videos are any indications, these guys have the chops to bring down the house; it's worth getting a glimpse before they blow up on the international improv circuit (which they will as soon as such an international improv circuit becomes a thing).

WHEN: May 6, 7 p.m.
WHERE: The Crowd Theater, 3935 N. Broadway
COST: $10

If you like your improvisers to be drunk, this is probably the show for you. In a unique format, Hitch*cocktails players improvise a full old-fashioned Hitchcockian thriller (think murder, starlets, unexplained suicides, tiny mustaches, etc.) — and they also take shots throughout. As the hour winds down, the improvisers get increasingly drunk, and the plot thickens (or dissolves completely, depending on your interpretation). And although these actors put up this show weekly at the Annoyance Theater in Chicago, they somehow lack the alcohol tolerance to stay 100 percent upright as the show concludes. (You should also stick around for Skinprov at 11:55 p.m., which involves both hilarity and nudity.)

WHEN: May 7, 10 p.m.
WHERE: Annoyance Theater, 851 W. Belmont Ave., Floor 2; (773) 697-9693
COST: $20

A full schedule and list of performers is available at the Chicago Improv Festival's website.