Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Freestyle Love Supreme
That's not to say a show–even one you've seen many times before–might not surprise you, thanks to an amazing performance or a director's unique take on the material. But ultimately, Hamlet is going to die, so is Willy Loman, and that damn gentleman caller is never going to marry Laura. But with sports, you never really know what's going to happen.
Improv is a bit of a cross between the two. (Which may be one reason why one of the most noted local improv groups calls itself "Bay Area Theatresports.") It's theatre, but it's unscripted, and almost anything can happen. Similarly, within the hip-hop world, there are MCs who painstakingly compose every word of their raps, and those who engage in "freestyling," where every word is improvised, made up on the spot, coming "off the dome" in the hip-hop vernacular. (The best-known examples of this are the rap battles featured in the movie 8 Mile, starring Eminem.)
Freestyle Love Supreme, launching its national tour at American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, is a thrilling amalgamation of hip-hop, theatre, and improvisation that changes with every performance. Led by Two Touch (aka Anthony Veneziale, who conceived the show with Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda), a group of 10 talented performers create the show on the fly, building it on the bones of a very basic structure that is all about us in the audience. Like all improv shows, audience participation is key, but Freestyle Love Supreme (the troupe, not the show) take it to a whole other level, asking the audience to not simply shout out words or occupations or situations, but to share moments in our lives–some banal, some life-altering.
It's this rather brilliant, yet simple, way of engaging the audience in the creative process that sets Freestyle Love Supreme apart from pretty much any other improv show you've ever seen. Two Touch has an easy way on stage, and one that somehow makes us feel we are truly a part of the process. He solicits input from every corner and level of the Geary (which was packed on opening night), seeking–in the first segment of the show–verbs. And down rained the verbs: litigate, twist, masturbate, elevate, which the cast–aided by keyboard players Rich Midway (aka Richard Baskin, Jr.) and Not Draggin (aka James Rushin), and beatboxer Shockwave (aka Chris Sullivan)–turn into a several minute rap that used not only the chosen verb (litigate), but pretty every other word the audience offered.
But that was just a warm-up for audience involvement. Soon Two Touch asked us to shout out what was bothering us–"hiccups!" "Joe Manchin!" "My vegan girlfriend!" "COVID!" (which Two Touch gently derided as "low-hanging fruit")–before diving into another rap. Then FLS went even deeper, asking us to offer up something that happened to us that we'd like to go back and change. "I watched the series "Lost" and wish I didn't." "I ate a glow stick at a rave." "I had to give a book report in the third grade and fainted." This last one was turned into a 10-minute rap operetta, recreating the embarrassing scene in rhymes, then redoing it the way the woman who offered the experience up wished it had gone.
Throughout every moment of the 90 intermission-less minutes, the cast kept the beat going so strong that I was afraid my calf might cramp from the constant toe-tapping in time I was doing. (Shout out to the technical crew, especially whoever was working the light board and has to come up with lighting changes and cues to synch with a constantly-changing show.)
The entire cast are so comfortable and at ease with themselves that you almost forget how much stress they must be under every night, stepping out in front of 1000+ people with only the barest idea of what they will do, and even less of what they will say. But that's the joy of improv, which in a subtle way reminds us that we all often step out into the world with no idea what our day will hold, so we will have to make it up as we go along. It might be brilliant, it might be boring, it might be tragic or joyful or ridiculous, but like Freestyle Love Supreme it will never be the same thing twice.
Freestyle Love Supreme runs through February 13, 2022, at American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets (ranging from $5-$130) and more information are available at www.act-sf.org. For more information on the tour, please visit freestylelovesupreme.com.