Created by Rebecca Northan with Bruce Horak, directed by Rebecca Northan. At Tarragon Theatre. Runs until October 29, 2017.
Rebecca Northan is one gifted improv artist. She showed that in spades with her 2010 breakout work, Blind Date, where, every performance, she would choose a willing participant from the audience to go on a date with. Through conversation and questions to the fella, Northan fashioned a show that has played over six hundred performances in three countries.
Northan and her collaborator Bruce Horak have raised the stakes in Undercover, a multi-character murder mystery with a twist. After a homicide at a party, two detectives—one actor, one audience member—are brought in to try to find the killer in this partly scripted yet often improvised seat-of-the-pants show.
How does that work? Cast members, in costume as police, mingle with the audience in the lobby before the show begins to suss out eager participants. In the first scene, Roberta Collins, the wily, street-smart, gum-chewing, and quick-witted lead detective, played beautifully by Rebecca Northan, announces the name of her partner.
At the performance I was at, Ron Traub—a dentist, married for forty-nine years, man of few words—was selected. Northan set the tone when she chatted up Ron, telling him to just be himself, relax, and have fun. And throughout the production, she and the rest of the cast treated Ron with respect and kindness, making a point to show him in the best light. We were charmed.
There are five other characters in the play, and those roles are mainly scripted. The part of the second detective, played by Ron, is improvised with Northan, in character as Collins. She gives Ron a notebook and instructions on how to investigate, where to snoop around, and who to interrogate. Often the cast would riff on what Ron said and incorporate it into their dialogue. And if Ron seemed unsure of what to do next sometimes even the audience got involved: “Look in the purse!”
The accomplished team is composed of Northan and Horak, along with Northan’s brother Jamie and a group of close friends who have worked together often: Christy Bruce, Terra Hazelton, and Dennis Cahill (who taught them all improv eons ago). This means they have a shorthand when it comes to communicating and picking up thoughts and jokes. They know each other’s humour. The laughs wiz by. And Ron, who was a bit tentative at first, held his own and even managed to get off some zingers.
Every show is different because the willing participant is different. But Northan and her team know what they’re doing, and, if the show I was at is any indication, it will always be a fun time.
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