Chicago is the world's capital of improvised comedy, so it's perhaps unsurprising that the Chicago Improv Festival has swelled in a few short years to genuinely massive proportions. From the celebrated Second City to audience favorites Schadenfreude to those quirky upstarts Galileo Players, there's certainly no shortage of local comedy groups to fill the bills, and executive producer Jonathan Pitts seems to be having no trouble in wrangling groups from around the country and the world to fill out the programming. Judging by the turnout at this year's event, the fifth annual Festival, there's plenty of audience interest as well.

Improv is a wildly diverse medium, and the Festival is constructed to showcase as many of its forms as possible. Pitts and his cohorts contrived to have five different venues pumping out shows every night over a very long weekend (the official opening night was Thursday, April 4, but events began as early as Monday) and the result was a giddy, slightly chaotic spectacle. Sketch groups, films, one-person and two-person shows, forums, speeches...oh, and an improv group or two.

The style of improvisation most well known to national audiences is probably short-form, the quick, vaudevillian games done in venues like ComedySportz and on TV's Whose Line is it Anyway? On opening night, this genre was represented by a group from Israel (of all places) called Lo Roim Mimeter, which translates as "The Metric System." The three Israelis were all manic energy and broad laughs, working through short-form chestnuts like "gibberish," in which one actor gives a nonsense-language lecture on a subject of the audience's choosing and another one "translates." Though the trio's English wasn't 100% perfect (audience suggestions often had to be repeated a time or two), they had the opening night crowd roaring.

The other shows of the evening were from the two most famous improv theaters in Chicago, The Second City and Improv Olympic. The former institution, Chicago's oldest and arguably the inventors of improv as we know it, sent a crack delegation whose members spoofed everything from Canada to brain disorders in their trademark style: clean, clever, and character driven. Jane, an all-female team that was a favorite at the Improv Olympic in the mid-'90s, put on a reunion show that was not only good--the women performed that great improv trick of establishing and maintaining a wide range of characters and returning bits with aplomb--but was extra impressive considering that they haven't worked together in five years. (The only serious problem with opening night had to do with the awarding of posthumous lifetime achievement awards at the top of the show. There is certainly nothing wrong with recognizing the achievements of innovators like Del Close and Martin De Maat, but why kick off a comedy festival with ponderous speechifying and giant pictures of dead people?)

TheaterMania caught a few other festival highlights, notably day two at Improv Olympic. On this occasion, an evening of solo shows gave Ian Roberts of the Upright Citizen's Brigade (Chicago-to-New York transplants now resident in their own Chelsea theater) a chance to chat about whatever came into his head. There are not many people in the world from whom this would be a welcome thing, but Roberts is definitely among them; he has the kind of calm, self-confident stage presence that allows him to ruminate hilariously about, for example, naked men in a gym locker room and actually leave people wishing he'd go on and on.

Lo Roim Mimeter
Lo Roim Mimeter
The evening then gave way to a series of duo shows; among them was WeirDass, featiromg Stephanie Weir (a Second City vet now starring on Mad TV) and Bob Dassie. These two offered the kind of careful, contemplative, and sophisticated long-form improvisation that is especially jaw-dropping to those more accustomed to quicker, wackier stuff. Watching two ace comedians work from character to character and from world to world, uninterrupted for 45 minutes is a pleasure unavailable anywhere outside the universe of improvisation. The Chicago Improv Festival shows exactly what makes the form so complex and beautiful, and it's certainly well worth celebrating.