Going Undercover with the crack improvisers of Spontaneous Theatre: a review

Christy Bruce and Bruce Horak in Undercover (A Spontaneous Theatre creation). Photo by Citrus Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I like your thinking,” says the tough-cookie Det. Sergeant (Rebecca Northan), snapping her gum approvingly at the rookie detective from time to time in the course of Undercover.

“I like your thinking” is the mantra of the “Spontaneous Theatre” murder mystery created by Northan and Bruce Horak, and now leaving its prints all over the Citadel Club stage. Whatever the “thinking” (or lack thereof) of the rookie recruited from the audience, six expert improvisers onstage, including Northan, “like” it. Which is to say they wrap their agile improviser wits around it; they run with it; they give it the buff of inevitability.

At the preview I saw this week, the new guy on the Edmonton Police Force is David, recruited from the audience before the show in a sort of mingle/application process. He’s not, of course, a performer by trade. He’s a polite retired human resources manager with nice manners, a nervous smile, and a reflexive tendency to say “sounds good” when the question “sounds good?” is put to him by, well, anyone onstage. (Think about that next time you pay a visit to your human resources manager.). 

Like her cohorts, Northan is a performer by trade. She’s the astonishingly resourceful creator and star of the international hit Blind Date, which makes a nerve-wracking set-up seem natural, unthreatening, and fun. An appealing Parisian clown named Mimi recruits a date from the guys in the audience, and spends the evening onstage with him, getting to know him.

Undercover, though, is a whole improvised play. And it’s in a familiar genre where suspects and clues get strung, and re-strung, on a narrative framework in a way that invites deductive reasoning. The framework here — supported by an impressively moveable and hence improv-friendly set (designer: Glenn Davidson) — is an homage to classic Agatha Christie.

The rookie’s debut assignment is to infiltrate an art auction in a posh countryside mansion 45 minutes out of town in Sturgeon County. I’m here to report that “Sturgeon County” is a laugh line: who knew?

He’s equipped with a suggestion or two from the Det. Sergeant and the crew at the cop shop (Atkins’ mastery of the classic flat-foot cop gait is a comedy in itself). “People taking notes in social situations make people uncomfortable.” Yeah, right. Tell me about it.

Rebecca Northan in Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation). Photo by Emily Cooper.

Anyhow, Northan’s cast of elite improvisers populates a gallery of suspects: the brittle society hostess (Northan) and her nervous husband (Horak), a visually impaired painter; the put-upon estate manager (Damien Atkins); a chatty cousin (Terra Hazelton); a hard-edged representative from a well-known Edmonton mob dynasty (Christy Bruce), whose stiletto heels look ready to drill a hole in your heart.

And there’s Die-Nasty’s Mark Meer as a city councillor who might be running for mayor; even his hair looks grave. In his bid for advance support, Graeme solicits the otherwise circumspect David for his views on bike lanes. Not one for flapping his gums unnecessarily David allows that he’s not in favour.

Lights flicker, things crash, people scream, someone gets murdered. And Act II is the investigation, led by the world-weary Det. Sergeant and the good-natured recruit. “How ya doin’? Doin’ good?” she asks David. “Totally,” says David. And that’s that. 

The rookie is game but compliant; you wouldn’t call him an initiator. On another night, with another audience recruit, the feel, the energy, the pace, the events of the investigation, could be entirely different.  As it is, the improvisers have to work pretty hard to float the fiction that David is leading the investigation when it seems to be in his nature (whilst onstage at least) to follow, to support the ideas of others. He’s not one for turning up clues and charging ahead with hypotheses; he’s all for letting the actors act.

In fact, when the arrest comes, the detective sergeant seems genuinely startled for a second. This makes for a different kind of comedy than will doubtless transpire at other performances. In the case of Wednesday’s preview, it’s the agility and easeful-ness with which the improvisers shore up non-existent ideas just as if they existed, that contributes substantially to the hilarity.

As Detective Sergeant Collins, Northan is imperturbable, witty in an off-hand way . “I see what you’re thinking here,” she says, scowling judiciously at the alleged acuity on display. There’s virtuosity in the unforced teamwork of Undercover. And the audience, along with their quiet representative onstage, has a roaring good time sampling it.


Undercover (A Spontaneous Theatre Creation)

Theatre: Spontaneous Theatre

Created by: Rebecca Northan and Bruce Horak

Directed by: Rebecca Northan

Starring: Rebecca Northan, Bruce Horak, Damien Atkins, Christy Bruce, Terra Hazelton, Mark Meer

Where: Citadel Club

Running: through April 29

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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