Undercover: the case of the comic mystery 28 September 2017.
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by Little Blue Lemon Inc
A murder mystery, no matter what artform it is created in, is already an interactive activity. Can the reader match wits with Sherlock Holmes? Can the viewer deduce the clues before Jessica Fletcher? Will Dale Cooper figure out just wtf is going on? Can the audience rise to the occasion and become the quickwitted hardboiled gumshoe who can crack the case?
The murder mystery genre is also full of tropes ripe for comedy - the stormy night, the suspects trapped in a mansion, the hidden safe, the telling clue that might be a red herring, the hardbitten dialogue, etc - and it is an instant soup mix of a setting for humour. Just cast a stark dark shadow across a desk, add a Henry Mancini-esque riff or two, and laughs are generated. Familiarity has turned a style into camp.
No wonder Spontaneous Theatre and their ringleader Rebecca Northan (Sextet) decided to place this latest creation in a grounded, comic and already interactive genre. Undercover gets to have it both ways, the audience and the audience member chosen to be their representative onstage know the rules of the game, but each time it is brought new twists by the audience surrogate and the resulting improvisation required to steer them in the right direction.
Northan turned this sort of theatre into high art with Blind Date, a resounding, irresistible hit wherein an audience member becomes the actor's object of desire for the duration of the show. Surprises and hilarity ensue. In Undercover, an audience member becomes the rookie detective who is plunked into the middle of a murder mystery and has to attempt to solve it. The audience is simultaneously rooting for the rookie - both detective and improvisational actor - to solve the case, and secretly hoping for their humiliation. The night I attended the interactivity spilled off the stage and resulted in many shouted directives and suggestions. And much laughter both at the clichés and the hapless rookie as he struggles.
When Undercover works, it works very well. The introductory segment when the rookie has the rules explained to him is very funny as it also contains some very witty theatre jokes. It is also the most tightly scripted section. Once launched into the mystery itself, Undercover loses steam instead of gaining momentum. The comic appeal of watching the actors' quick wits come up with a line, or a way to advance the narrative, drop a clue, or dodge a curve ball, is unfortunately a game of diminishing returns. The first time is hilarious, the second comical, the third amusing, but by the time it has happened, with variations, several dozen times, the pace begins to sag instead of soar.
Northan is a compelling presence and watching her shoehorn her apparently natural affable empathy into a "grizzled cop" persona is very funny. She gets endless mileage out of threatening to punch a suspect. And, as that might not happen every night, she is also quick on her feet with a line or an observation. However even the most personable and lovable comic persona can't survive having to continually prod - though Northan does mild exasperation with aplomb - the rookie in a specific direction.
And Northan is offstage for most of the first act. The rest of the cast is quite capable but are straitjacketed by the demands of the roles within the plot and not given enough space to improvise wacky or compelling characters in response to the rookie. Jamie Northan gets the best bits as both a grizzled veteran cop (a great scripted bit about doughnuts) and the fey manservant who should have a few more sordid secrets than he gets to reveal.
Of course Undercover is different every night depending on the cast member culled from the audience. A more receptive player might respond to Terra Hazelton's attempts at comic seduction or spar more with Bruce Horak's bitter cuckold. Or it might go somewhere else entirely giving Christy Bruce's mysterious femme fatale or Dennis Cahill's corrupt city councilor something to do. Perhaps the tight necessary structure of a murder mystery is somehow inherently resistant to the freedom necessary to take improvisational flight.
Undercover starts strong and provides much merriment and even a soupcon of suspense, both plot and about the fate of the rookie. The set is a comedian in itself and the clues are just the right mixture of solvable, cliché and inventive. And one wants to cheer when the rookie snaps out a zinger. Perhaps that level of cleverness is unsustainable and the laughs are fated to diminish as the clues are exposed. Or maybe I saw an off night, it might just depend on whodunnit.
Undercover continues until Sun, Oct 29 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. tarragontheatre.com