What: “Blind Date”
When: Now until April 1
Where: Ordway McKnight Theatre, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
It’s hard to think of two more flop-sweat inducing things than improv comedy and a blind date. Both have the potential to go horribly wrong, and both have a reputation for doing so. Even when things are going well, improv is fueled by the nervous energy of the crowd and players, the same kind of energy that might exist within the two people that just met through Match.com. So it either makes a lot of sense or no sense at all that these two things would be paired up.
Since “Blind Date,” the improvisational theater piece currently at the Ordway McKnight Theatre, is such a success on several levels, it’s safe to assume that the pairing does make sense.
In the show, actress and improv veteran Rebecca Northan picks an unsuspecting man out of the crowd, brings him on stage and guides him through a blind date with some version of herself. Northan speaks with a comically exaggerated French accent and wears a red clown nose, to make sure that things don’t feel too real to be funny. Other than that and a few orchestrated twists along the way, it’s just a date that you get to watch.
Before the show, there is a cocktail hour where audience members are encouraged to mingle with the cast and each other.
“The only thing that I’m looking for when I walk through the lobby is, if I were at a party, who would I want to keep talking to,” Northan said. “We’ll check with the girlfriend or wife, if there is one, and ask them how they feel about it. If she’s the least bit hesitant, we won’t do it, but if they’re game, we go for it.”
Some nights, the fact a girlfriend or wife is watching from the crowd is what drives the comedy in the show, but not always.
“When you pick out a single guy, it’s tons of fun,” Northan said. “They don’t have the girlfriend resistance, so sometimes we can go further.”
Either way, Northan’s comic gift shines as she quickly and seamlessly twists the words of her unsuspecting date or jokes about some aspect of his life. Callbacks to jokes made earlier are often so natural and integral to the show, it’s hard to believe that the jokes change every night. And when the jokes take a backseat, Northan’s overwhelming kindness and charm brings an ease to the performance that is extremely rare in improv. This is probably why she prefers to stay away from that term altogether.
“I wish there was another word than improv, since improv has so much baggage attached to it,” Northan said. “I like to just say that I do spontaneous theater.”
That works because the show is not always comedy.
“The fact that the show is positioned as being an improv show makes people think it will be a crazy comedy, but I look for at least one or two truthful moments in each show, because I want to get to know the person,” Northan said. “It’s kind of like a very interestingly packaged interview show. I don’t care if they’re funny or not. I just want to sit and have a good conversation with them, and trust that funny stuff will come out, but also truthful pathos will come out and we’ll have some idea of who that guy is. At the end of the show, I want the whole audience to have a crush on him.”
When more serious topics first arise (like the man on stage spoke about his wife who passed away five years earlier), there is a sense in the audience that Northan must change the subject and lighten things up immediately, but her greatest strength in the show is mining these moments and then easing back into comedy. She has had two years and more than 150 performances of this show to hone that skill.
“I’m not always looking for moments of comedy. The kind of comedy I like comes from truthful human experience,” Northan said. “The laughs through the whole show end up being better if there’s also something else in there. If I were painting a picture, I want to paint with all the colors, not just the happy colors.”
That said, the show is still a comedy. Northan’s talent for getting laughs out of any topic or person is what makes the show work. But just as impressive is the structure, emotionality and scope of the show and how fully realized it is for something that must be realized in front of paying customers.
“Sometimes I’ll read something like, ‘Oh, the show obviously has a structure.’ Like we’re somehow ripping people off,” Northan said. “It’s like, ‘Hang on a second, we’ve basically structured a play with a beginning middle and end, starring a different civilian every night, and you feel ripped off by that?’ We’re at the height of our powers to make that happen. It’s no small feat. The structure is in place, because ultimately we want to tell a story and watch this hero go on a journey. A good piece of theater has to have a beginning, middle and end.”
“Blind Date” makes sure that it has each, but that’s about all it makes sure of. The rest is up in the air, and watching the show as it falls is a lot of fun.
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