Undercover is unnerving, and actually unpredictable

Rebecca Northan shows impressive chops in improv murder mystery

To say that a movie, TV show or play is unpredictable is a common and probably over-used comment in reviews.

Conversely, calling something predictable is rarely a compliment.

Calling Undercover, actress and playwright Rebecca Northan’s latest foray into improvised theatre, unpredictable is almost unavoidable. Not only is the audience left wondering what will happen next, even the cast doesn’t really know what will happen throughout the play.

The play centres around a rookie detective character who is literally pulled from the audience at the beginning of the play. That rookie is called into a tough assignment on their first day on the job: Go undercover into a rich and sleazy group of friends with percolating social tensions.

For Northan, inviting non-actors into the centre of the story is part of a larger dream. According to her comment in the show notes, “magic happens when we get them through the door.”

On opening night, the lucky audience member turned stage star was a tall and shy man who introduced himself as Alex Earl, a masters student in public health at University of Toronto.

Earl was at times the perfect straight man to Northan’s foil. But Earl also got his quips in too, often times set up masterfully by Northan and Dennis Cahill, who played a Toronto city councilor in the play.

Pulling an audience member into the play is the ultimate engaging act, and it turns out it’s also a way to immediately endear the performance to the audience.

You could feel the mixture of embarrassment and curiousity when Earl was called to the stage. How is this going to go? You can also feel the frustration and awkwardness as he tries to pull the cryptic clues together to solve the murder the play is centred around.

When Earl has a breakthrough in case, we all do. When he comes out of his shell with a sharp joke, or beautifully sets-up Northan and she knocks it into the back row, the combination of laughter and relief is intoxicating.

That is also to say that Undercover is not for those adverse to cringe-core. If you can’t stomach the risk professional performers and their new recruit — which might be you — stumbling through a scene on occasion, then perhaps Undercover is not for you.

There were these nail-biting moments in the case with Earl and company, but of course the show will be different every time.

If opening night was any indication however, the smart money is on Undercover to use Northan’s impressive wit and charm for a successful run at The Tarragon.

Undercover is playing at The Tarragon Theatre until Oct. 29.

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Undercover is unnerving, and actually unpredictable