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article imageReview: Latest Second City Toronto revue tackles some thorny issues Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Sep 4, 2016 in Entertainment
Toronto - Second City rarely shies from controversial topics, but the Toronto comedy company’s new revue, “Come What Mayhem!”, seems to have thorny social issues as its mission. Terrorism, racism, rape culture, bullies – a lot of boxes get checked off.
As you’d expect, some of these risks pay off beautifully, while others get uncomfortable laughs while leaving an unpleasant aftertaste. Come What Mayhem!, which opened on Tuesday, isn’t as strong or consistent as the company’s last show, The Hotline Always Blings Twice, but it does introduce fresh new performers with ample talent. Kevin Dooley and Becky Johnson are back from the last revue, and both are great, while newbies Ann Pornel, Roger Bainbridge, Lindsay Mullan and Brandon Hackett all get their share of big laughs. Carly Heffernan, a veteran performer from four SC revues, takes the director’s reins here and keeps a brisk pace going.
The best sketch in Mayhem is the one closing out the first half: a game show called You Oughta Know, in which host Bainbridge quizzes three contestants (Johnson, Dooley and a random audience member) on their awareness of current events – but with dire consequences for wrong answers. When they don’t know what ISIS stands for or the name of Turkey’s president, Hackett comes out as the Disapproving Man, first shaking his head contemptuously, then threatening to deport a Syrian refugee orphan. The scene makes you laugh at your own apathy without smacking you too hard with the message.
Another terrific bit, which straddles the line between viciously hilarious and insensitive, has Dooley as the star of an anti-bullying video – which ends up sabotaged by one of his bullies. Later on, Hackett and Mullan play a couple who’ve planned a night of intimacy, but Hackett can’t get in the mood because of all the news online about injustices against African Americans. “Black lives matter – but tonight, sex lives matter!” cries the desperately horny Mullan, who owns this scene with great lines and great physicality.
These sketches succeed at getting tough themes across without sacrificing the comedy. A few others aim for the same goal, but come off as more clever than funny. One scene, likely inspired by the Jian Ghomeshi trial fiasco, has Pornel as a child complaining to her teacher, played by Johnson, about a boy who pushed her – but Johnson won’t believe her story because there were no witnesses. Daring, but not really satisfying. There’s a good idea that doesn’t really work when a trio of classical musicians resort to loud hip-hop to get the funding that the Canada Council for the Arts denies them. Another sketch set on a delayed Toronto streetcar runs a bit too long, but Dooley’s frustrated rant is cathartic for any local transit user who’s fed up with the TTC’s legendary incompetence.
But the focus on serious or topical satire doesn’t mean that the troupe avoids pure comedy. Bainbridge has a silly song about a dead man in an attic, while Hackett gets a big musical number in which his character brags about ordering a side salad instead of fries at a restaurant. And Mullan is hilarious as a mousy Shoppers Drug Mart cashier with a secret romantic past, in an improvised bit with another audience member.
Of the cast, Pornel has the most energy – sometimes a little too much, maybe; she’s definitely the loudest and shoutiest of the bunch, but does well in scenes tackling body image, racial stereotyping and even racial fetishism (one bit has her texting Dooley on a dating website and telling him to act more Caucasian). Mullan is the best of the newcomers, showing a fine gift for both verbal comic timing and physical humour. And Johnson is superb in an otherwise routine sketch in which her boyfriend keeps running into his exes during a date; you don’t just laugh at her reactions, you cringe with her.
There’s more good material in Come What Mayhem! – including a tense yet still funny monologue by Bainbridge as a movie theatre usher, suggesting the SC Mainstage itself as a possible terrorist target – but let’s hope that the company continues to keep comedy as its main focus, with serious themes and identity politics as the dressing. We’re here to laugh, after all – but if the humour can make us think afterwards, that’s a bonus.
Come What Mayhem! is running for an extended engagement at the Second City Mainstage in Toronto.
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