Full disclosure: I loathe audience participation. If there’s a whiff of it in the promotional materials for a play, I’m suddenly very busy that night. Yes, all of the nights. The difficulty — and I think I’m not alone here — is that I suffer from excessive empathy. If said participating audience member is terrified, angry, or the oblivious butt of jokes, I’m either anxious or enraged on their behalf. I generally endure it with my eyes tightly closed like it’s the shower scene in Psycho.
So in 2015, when I found myself at a show called Legend Has It with no prior knowledge of the premise or the creative team (long story, don’t ask), I was horrified to find out that an audience member was about to be plucked out of their comfortable seat and invited onstage. Once you’re seated in the middle of a row, it’s hard to get out without making a scene, so there I remained. And what I saw was a lovely show in which writer/director Rebecca Northan gently guided a child (a child!) through his role as The Hero in a mythical quest filled with fantastical creatures. Both of them actually seemed to be having fun. And strangely, so was I.
Northan is back in town, again paired with co-writer Bruce Horak and a cast that is heavily weighted toward Loose Moose alumni. They have developed Undercover for Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre and Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, and this time it’s a murder mystery in which the fully consenting audience member is brought aboard as a rookie detective, working his (or her) first case. The improv veterans set the stage and establish a wee bit of structure in Act One, but let loose in the second act and take the rookie’s lead, building the story as he (it was a he on the night I saw it) dictates. He chooses where to search for clues, and who to interrogate, and it is perfectly possible for him to miss all of the clues and fail to reach the right answer. Northan emphasizes at the outset that it doesn’t matter whether the newbie solves the case correctly — the point is to have fun.
Those who remember Northan’s days at Loose Moose will know that she thrives in this environment. As the lead detective and mentor to the rookie, she is principally responsible for creating a safe place for the audience member to play, and a large part of her focus is on helping him to succeed. But she is also one of the smartest improvisers you will ever see, and she wastes no opportunity handed to her by any of her colleagues (including the rookie). Whether it’s a double entendre or a subtle plot point, she misses nothing. The rest of the cast (in particular Horak as the husband of the murder victim, and Christy Bruce as the purported head of a local crime family) are also quite adept at balancing their twin tasks — advancing the story while creating a warm blanket of safety around their guest.
The comedy most assuredly takes precedence over the mystery in this show. If you were being picky, you might question whether there were enough genuine clues in this series of red herrings to allow anyone, no matter how expert, to solve this one correctly. But at the end of the day, my belly hurts from laughing, and I never once felt like closing my eyes.
(Photo of Rebecca Northan and an audience member at a previous performance of Undercover, courtesy Little Blue Lemon Inc.)
Undercover runs at the Vertigo Theatre until Feb. 11. For tickets please go to www.vertigotheatre.com.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.