Rebecca Northan unveils her new show Undercover at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre
The opening night of Undercover at Tarragon Theatre was packed (as Rebecca Northan shows tend to be) and lively (ditto) with audience members keen to turn up and drink, mingle, and watch the proceedings as Northan – in what has become her signature play – scans the attendees for the evening’s perfect foil. In a new twist, Undercover adds a number of characters and a number of possible endings to the mix. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, as improv often is, and the result didn’t really, well, kill.
The concept: seasoned Detective Sergeant Collins (Northan) hires a brand new rookie detective (the evening’s audience member, Alex Earl on the night I saw it) and sends him to what should be a simple assignment that turns deadly. The rest of the cast play an assortment of other characters and, as the Rookie works away at the mystery, the cast organizes and reorganizes themselves around that person’s choices in the investigation like iron filings around a magnet.
This is great in theory and probably super in practice with a Rookie who feels ready to make choices and confidently go with them. Earl, like probably nearly everyone in the world in his situation, seemed concerned with spoiling the play by making a mistake, and the action suffered stalls and lags as result. The rest of the cast – who are great, honestly, everyone in the show is eleven kinds of talented – clearly tried to find a balance between giving him some guidance and letting things play out, but I think the show may just have been… too new.
I wanted Northan to use her brilliant “time-out space” to take him aside and encourage him to be bold, to pursue leads, to reassure him that he couldn’t make a mistake or ruin the play by saying something “wrong.” This isn’t remotely a knock on the adorable and cheerful Earl, to be clear – who has ever had such a singular and dizzying experience as being put among a cadre to talented improvisers and told there’s no such thing as a wrong choice? I simultaneously really want to try it and find it truly alarming to consider.
There were a lot of happy laughs in the show, bits of business and gags and gimmicks, and the overall effect was pleasing enough. No one left unhappy, certainly. But I have seen Northan make incredible work, more than once, with a total stranger in her show Blind Date. Her ability to connect, artistically and personally, feels like frank magic. Undercover, with more people and a less-familiar concept (many more people have had a blind date than investigated a murder, I think) dilutes the thing that made Blind Date such a special experience and doesn’t quite build what I had hoped for in its place.
A moment before I close to tip my hat to stage manager Marcie Januska whom, unless I am badly mistaken, is tasked with responsively creating lighting and sound cues on the fly to match the onstage action. That’s an exhausting prospect, and to find a stage manager whose improvisational skills are also incredibly good seems a rare and delightful thing.
I have great faith that this show will improve over time, as the cast gets better at picking and instructing their Rookie. I might wait a bit to see it, if I were you, but I would definitely see it.
- Undercover plays at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgeman Ave.) until October 29th.
- Shows are Tuesday through Sunday at 8pm (with 7:15pm open lobby with cash bar and snacks) and Saturday & Sunday at 2:30pm.
- Tickets range in price from $28 to $60
- Tickets can be had online, by calling 416-531-1827 or in person at the box office
- Tickets can also be purchased on the TodayTix app and website for theatre tickets. Mooney on Theatre readers can get $15 off their first purchase at checkout with the code MOONEY.
photo of ensemble and audience member by Little Blue Lemon, Inc.