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Chicago City Limits has been New York's preeminent improvisational troupe since its founding in 1979. While their colossal wit and comedic wisdom have carefully remained in synch with the changing times, the basic structure and format of their show remain a winning combination.

From their first performances held in a church basement on Manhattan's upper east side, with co-founder and executive producer Paul Zuckerman along with Linda Gellman, Chris Oyen, David Regal and Carol Schindler, to the current troupe of Carl Kissin, Victor Varnado, Denny Seigel and Joe DeGise II, CCL has long mixed up an original blend of comedy. The group has a phenomenal rapport -- each performer seemingly able to read the minds of the others. Each cast member plays off the others' talents, pushing them each to give more and more. And unlike some of the new breed of improv performers who've coasted into Comedy Central using the "shock/schlock" approach, CCL has remained cutting-edge without resorting to cheap shots or below-the-belt humor.

Their current show, Y2K, You're Okay, mixes audience-spun improv routines with nearly a dozen short topical snippets, and an Act I musical finale about the impending Y2K crisis that offers devilish solutions to the pending doom. They also focus attention on the current cultural climate, engaging in quick bits and bytes on such topics as the Internet, Tinky Winky, and Bill Gates and Microsoft.

But the test of a troupe's true mettle is to discover how they fare when virtually anything is thrown at them. It is for this nightly challenge that CCL spends hours rehearsing. The audience provides the starting point, and then the players must build and create a framework that lends itself to comedic situations.

On Thanksgiving Eve, the song title "Hang On Sloopy" was the premise for a window ledge scene enacted in a variety of literary styles, while the audience shouted out names of playwrights. In addition, a fast-paced version of Jeopardy pitted audience answers with instant (and witty) questions from the troupe. After intermission, the troupe concocted an improvised Broadway musical from a woman's tale of being drunk and trying to hurdle a fallen tree, as well as a talk show segment in which departed guests Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Adolf Hitler all fielded questions on current events.

The finale is a classic routine that CCL has used as a personal signature for some 20 years. It's an advanced form of charades called Torture The Actor, and in it one member of the troupe must try to identify a phrase provided by someone in the audience based solely on the clues provided by the other members of the troupe. On this particular night, a three-line quote from the always amusing Frederick Nietzsche provided a full 20 minutes of delightfully torturous, first-rate improv as actor Joe DeGises II worked to get it. To the amazement of an impressed audience, DeGises ultimately aced the phrase word for word.

If it is true, as someone once said, that "improvisation is wrestling for intellectuals," then kudos to the cast -- for all of them are wrestling champions.

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