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by Karen Topham

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Playwright: Second City ensemble. At: Second City online, at . Tickets: Free. Runs through: June 13

All of Chicago's theaters, along with those across the rest of the country, remain shuttered due to COVID-19, but that doesn't mean there is nothing theater-related going on in the city.

Several companies have been creating original programming for online viewing, and one of the most prolific is Second City. A quick trip to will provide information about several different improvised programs under the heading "Improv House Party." I've sampled a couple of them and, while ( like just about all totally improvised shows ) they are uneven, they remain fun ( again, like just about all improvised shows ) and more than worth your time.

It's difficult to provide a real assessment of any improvised program, as by their design they are completely different from week to week, but I'm impressed here by what Second City is trying to do. Renowned for its ability to be creative and inventive, the company has used every bit of that capacity to provide homebound viewers all around the country ( and everywhere else, for that matter ) with an evening of laughter in a Zoom-oriented world.

On Tuesdays, Improv House Party presents "Girls Night Out," an hour-long audience-interactive sketch and game show featuring Carissa Barreca, Alex Bellisle, Ashley Comeau and Sayjal Joshi, and including other guests each week. On a recent night, after Barreca complained that "lockdown is making it nearly impossible to find my soulmate, and my boyfriend agrees," the group played a game called "Date Me." Spurred by suggestions made through the chat feature, they each took on the character of someone ( or something—one woman became an apple ) else and vied for the attention of the audience.

After a hilariously improvised "biopic" of a volunteer audience member, they moved to a tribute to the "Fierce Female of the Week," a ( real ) woman who is making a difference in these difficult times, before moving on to the "Wine O'Clock News." ( Maria Randazzo made a guest appearance here playing Dawna, an anti-mask activist who got kicked out of Home Goods. ) Another wonderfully fun game was "World's Worst," in which the audience suggested categories for the cast to play with. ( In the "film genre" category they received the suggestion of film noir, which elicited the line, "He had legs that went all the way up to his knees." )

Thursday night's offering, "Helter Shelter," is billed as a "live, satirical, and highly interactive comedy show." Hosted by Mary Catherine Curran, Nigel Downer and Alan Linic, the show features a weekly guest cast and lots of improvised silliness centered on a topic of the week. ( The one I watched was "Cautious Optimism." ) It included Curran's "interview" with a baby as well as a filmed bit by Adam Schreck as a furloughed Wrigley Field hot dog vendor desperately trying to sell his wares on a sparsely populated and socially distanced sidewalk, and a song by Tricia Black about having moved in too soon with her girlfriend and being stuck in quarantine together. The improv highlight of the evening was an "Isolation Idol" hosted by "Bryan Seacrest."

These offerings ( along with Saturday night's "Scriptless" and a family-friendly Thursday-morning program called "The Really Awesome Improv Show" ) are not at all the polished, professional entertainment that you'd find on a Second City stage, but they don't have to be. They are hugely successful at their raison d'etre, which is giving us all a break from the overbearing news of the world. Until such a time when we can reopen our theaters, this is exactly what we need.

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