Undercover pits an audience detective against a murder mystery
While many improv shows rely on audience members for only a few moments to serve a gag, director and producer Rebecca Northan’s follow-up to her international hit Blind Date, takes a different approach. Undercover makes a single “rookie detective” the core component of the production’s 125-minute narrative conceit.
Police Sgt. Roberta Collins (Northan) hires the detective from the audience, quickly brings them up to speed on the job, and then sends them undercover to gather intel on a new criminal name in town at a private art auction on an acreage. Co-written by Northan and multidisciplinary artist Bruce Horak (who also plays Peter Vinen, the rookie’s inside contact) Undercover delivers an experience like no other.
Pronged walls swivel around the stage, first forming the borders of the police station and then the many quarters of a fictional, inherited estate somewhere in Sturgeon County. Fold-down furniture, secret compartments and protruding panels add character to each room as professional improvisers work around the newbie.
The show’s first act serves to acclimate the rookie to the dynamic and unhinged cast at the auction (Damien Atkins especially stands out in his role as Daniel Murphy, a reportedly vengeful estate manager, bullied as a child by members of the family). Then the second act turns the audience-detective loose on a “surprise” murder case, where they’re free to investigate however they choose. Northan and her cast offer the rookie a surprising amount of agency in the story, and the production is hilarious because of it.
The humour is initially and often born from the interactions with the rook: Riffs on the detective’s overly obvious statements or surprising questions generate gags that will never be the same twice. But the casts’ improvisation skills mesh fluidly with excellently rehearsed acting as they pull from a repertoire of available story beats—some of which are never seen if the detective doesn’t investigate a room or a suspect.
For every on-the-fly retort from the headstrong Lia Da Costa (Christy Bruce) towards the detective’s questions, you may see an impassioned display of genuine emotion from Graeme Nelson (Mark Meer). And the cast strikes a fine balance between letting the detective shape the story, and helping them along if they’re at a loss.
As only around 30 percent of audience-detectives have perfectly solved the case during more than 70 performances of Undercover, it doesn’t matter whether the investigator is great, only that everyone in the theatre enjoys the attempt.
To this end, Undercover’s emergent plot is supported by dynamic audio effects from stage manager/sound improviser Emma Brager. They’re first introduced in a funny transition where the detective learns to mime buckling their seatbelt and closing a car door. Then, familiar flutters punctuate the plot as the rookie’s latex-clad hands rifle through props to uncover new clues.
When the detective in my show solved a major subplot of the mystery within seconds of the investigation’s start, Northan switched scenes with a coy “I have a feeling we’re going to go home early tonight.” But her intuition was a little off: Crippling indecision seized our detective when it was time to name a culprit, resulting in the first full-cast arrest in the Undercover’s history. There weren’t enough handcuffs to bind their wrists, but a cloud of smoke trailed the conga line off stage after everyone, including Collins and our rookie detective traded hits from suspect Brooke Pounsbury’s (Terra Hazelton) vapourizer.
The opportunity to experience a similar first is Undercover’s biggest attraction. And with tables in the house and drinks allowed inside, the show makes for a fantastic night out.
Until Sun., Apr. 29
The Club (Citadel Theatre)
Tickets start at $30