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Theater Review:

"ALFRED HITCHCOCK RESENTS," The Free Associates at the Royal George Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Any actors attempting to skewer Alfred Hitchcock might feel like they are being pursued by the delirious and diabolical ghost of Mel Brooks’ "High Anxiety." But The Free Associates – actor-improvisers extraordinaire known for their fully improvised parodies of literary, film and TV genres – have scaled the great monuments of comedy and are more than prepared to send any previous spoofified imposters careening over, well, their own personal Mount Rushmore.

"Alfred Hitchcock Resents," the troupe’s latest impromptu masterpiece, slices to the core of the legendary thriller-filmmaker’s psychologically stylish motifs and inner workings of classic relationship-driven stories – from "The Birds" to "North by Northwest" -- that aimed at exposing a certain phobia of the human spirit. But this show, gracefully created and directed by Adrienne Smith, refuses to stagnate in analytical inertia. An entire "film" on stage is forged solely through audience suggestions – and the results are not just intelligent and probing; they’re outrageously funny.

Since The Free Associates lost their home base when the Ivanhoe Theatre closed this past January, they’ve taken up residence at the Royal George Theatre’s upstairs space (where they continue to perform their long-running "ER"-based hit, "BS"). It was quite an emotional parting from their charming shoebox environs at Ivanhoe. But The Free Associates have survived their sudden uprooting. The group is on top of its game and appears more than ever to have its improvised spoofs down to a science without sacrificing humanity and originality.

Hitchcock – known for his cool blondes, suave villains and swanky locales -- may seem like a piece of arsenic-tainted cake to spoof. But these seasoned comedians never shortchange this iconic and exacting director.

On opening night, audiences provided the name of a WASP-ish heroine – Phyllis Beaumont – enmeshed in a dizzying pursuit of a rare Chinese tissue in "The Woman Who Never Was." Viewers continued to shape the plot. Suffering from a phobia of ferrets, Phyllis is stalked by the villainous Evan Tyler who is engaged in the rodent trade. But the intrepid protagonist in pumps manages to find love and safety in the arms of a Canadian trapper and ex-department store wrapper named Jo Jo Klunckstein. The two end up scaling the Great Wall of China, where the mystical tissue emits a poison that gets into the ratty veins of their taxidermy-inclined nemesis.

Susan Gaspar, the company’s new artistic director and long-time ensemble member, stars as Phyllis. She propels the show into a brilliantly witty and melodramatic universe. Her scenes with the ever-reliable Joe Reilly as Jo Jo retain a freshness, innocence and innovation that could keep Hitch himself on his ample toes were he still alive. Reilly ignites a torrid romance with Gaspar’s character by cooing, "You struck me as an incandescent string of beauty."

They smartly balance tender romance with a forthright clumsiness. At the Great Wall’s summit, Reilly dreamily expresses his desire to stay up there forever; Gaspar serves as a blunt counterpoint when she responds, "But we’ll starve, and I have to go to the bathroom."

Todd Guill, an explosive comedic genius, turns Evan into an unforgettable reptilian villain, complete with a mouse in his lapel and a lugubrious British accent. Holding a cigarette between his thumb and index finger, Guill spits out the word "Schnectady" with operatic glee. He is riotously paired with Matt Engle’s loopy and thuggish sidekick, whose malleable facial expressions reveal as many sardonic textures as the actors’ words. Lisa Di Gangi also shines in multiple 1950’s-style roles – from Phyllis’ bouncy girlfriend and shopping partner to her stole-wearing neighbor whose pelts cross paths with the sadistic Evan.

Hitchcock fans may suffer "Vertigo" from the ceaseless flights of fanciful laughter.•

"Alfred Hitchcock Resents" runs Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Sept. 2 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted. Tickets: $20. Call 312-988-9000.
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