The wild wild west meets well-executed improv in Sundown playing at Toronto’s Comedy Bar
Part of me doesn’t like calling Sundown (which plays the Comedy Bar) improv. It’s an improvised show, set in the classic Old West (gunslingers! sheriffs! snake-oil salesmen!), but then it twists. Rather than a string of vignettes, you get a whole, coherent, singular story from start to finish, with a busload of recurring characters, callbacks and brick jokes to reward your attention. And it’s all accompanied live by Devon Hyland, who conjures up chain gangs, dust storms, disastrous craft fairs and water-tower fistfights using only a guitar.
In short, this is improv plus: improv framed around a lengthy, meaty story; improv with a cast who know how to build and develop, rather than just go for easy laughs; improv which feels like somewhere, off in the wings, there’s a director whispering cues and instructions to the performers. And the effect is delicious.
The cast are all singularly gifted and take every imaginable opportunity to play to their obvious and well-established strengths: Alessandra Vite does masterful detail work, sneaking into scenes and stealing them out from under everyone else; Christy Bruce subtly keeps things moving while also getting some of the biggest laughs of the night; Conor Bradbury takes a singular and infectious joy in being deeply, deeply silly (especially if the laughs are at his own expense!); Ashley Comeau’s character work is always polished to a mirrored sheen, even as her confederates contort her into something truly ludicrous; and Julian Frid knows when to ham it up and when to make rooms for others, all the better to jump in later, funnier than ever before.
But despite this strong ensemble, the show clearly belongs to director Colin Munch, whose greatest virtue here may well be his willingness to do whatever the hell his co-stars tell him to do–and they certainly don’t make it easy for him. He may lack Bradbury’s overt glee or Vite’s impishness, but he rolls with the punches like nobody’s business, never fazed or flummoxed, and is highly adept at pulling off the unique trick of appearing to be very, very serious about extremely, extremely silly things.
This evening flows especially well because of the cast’s full-bodied embrace of a unique staging element. Every scene is introduced by one or more members of the cast pencilling in a setting and scenario (“We see a bustling craft fair, full of knickknacks and hipsters…”), then leaving the actors to fill in the rest. Not only does this provide an amazing method of feeding lines and opportunities to their castmates, it also means that scenes begin and end when they “ought” to: we never have to deal with the Typical Tedious Improv Setups (“Come in, Johnson, I’ve been meaning to talk to you…”), and if a scene starts to peter out before it reaches an obvious conclusion, the cast inevitably swoops in and shoves it away before it can well and truly jump the rails.
There was, however, one problem I need to tease out: I get it, this is comedy, it’s all in good fun–but this cast is so much better than cracking idle, cheap jokes about two-spirited people and gender confusion and “ha ha transgendered people ha”. It was less than 60 seconds of the show, but it’s one of the things which has really stuck with me–and in a show this good, with this many talented people involved (and so many other highlights!), that’s disappointing.
Still, everyone gets it wrong sometimes, right? And there’s so, so much right here–this cast, this format, this setting, this wonderful, wonderful show–that perhaps we can allow them a few speed bumps.