The implications of a kiss: When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date

Back by popular demand from its 2015-16 season, Tarragon Theatre wraps its 2016-17 season with Spontaneous Theatre’s production of Blind Date, created by Rebecca Northan. This run of the improv date night hit features Northan, Christy Bruce and Tess Degenstein as rotating Mimis, and Bruce Horak as various other characters.

For those of you not familiar with the show, Mimi (a lovely French clown) has been waiting for her blind date for two hours. Clearly, she’s been stood up, and instead of giving up on her evening, she chooses a man from the audience to be her date (prospective dates have spoken with the Blind Date team before the show and have consented to the possibility of being chosen).

Last night’s date was 44-year-old Raymond, a communications and sociology professor who’s working on his PhD. He grew up in the Annex (a neighbourhood in Toronto) with a single mom and a younger sister, surrounded by strong women in the family. His awareness and appreciation of women and their experience translated into his own identification as a feminist, as well as his earlier work in film, where he made a point of creating roles for women. He also works with autistic kids. I know! A well-educated, socially aware, sweet and gentle man who respects women—Raymond is a catch.

Last night’s Mimi was Rebecca Northan, who set some ground rules before they set out on their evening together: honesty at all times, her date has the option to call a time out for clarification or during moments of discomfort (his date actual date, who Christy Bruce kept company, is allowed one time out call from her seat in the audience), and her date needs to temporarily pretend that he’s single and available for this date with her.

There was a really nice give and take feel to the date, with both Raymond and Mimi engaged, asking questions and being open with their responses. Mimi was clearly impressed by Raymond’s work and accomplishments, especially his identity as a feminist. Some truly engaging and thought-provoking discussions emerged regarding the nature of what Raymond teaches: an awareness and understanding of the experiences of others, and the intersectionality of experiences. They also spoke of their upbringing—bonding over being the eldest sibling, raised by single moms—and there was a truly tender moment of sharing and inspiration when Mimi recounted the experience of being present at her mother’s death from cancer (Northan’s own story). Her mother ushered her into the world and she ushered her mother out of it.

Soft-spoken, but communicative, Raymond worked through his nerves to play along—setting his own boundaries when he expressed an unwillingness to dance, which became the subject for ongoing gentle teasing for the rest of the show. And just when you thought he couldn’t be more awesome, he revealed a great sense of humour during their chat about Millennials: handling students who won’t put down their cellphones during class and essays that include emojis. In the scene at Mimi’s uncle’s apartment, that was the funniest and most cerebral lead-up to a kiss I’ve ever seen. And in the flash forward to their life together five years later, Raymond handled a hilariously stressful situation like a champ.

One of the things that Mimi outlines before the date starts is that her job is to look after her date and make sure he’s okay for the duration. This was evident throughout the entire performance, but especially so during the scene where Mimi and Raymond get pulled over by a female motorcycle cop (Degenstein) investigating Mimi’s erratic, possibly drunk, driving. Raymond is Black and the all-white company demonstrated awareness and sensitivity for the lived experiences of Black men regarding interactions with police. The cop took a firm hand with Mimi, who was the driver; and was respectful with Raymond, requesting that he take the wheel for the rest of their trip. And there was an added friendly twist when the cop realized he’d been her communications professor and thanked him for being such a great teacher.

This was my fourth time seeing Blind Date, including its genesis as a 10-minute piece at the Spiegeltent at Harbourfront Centre and the queer version at Buddies in Bad Times last year, with Northan playing Mimi in three of those performances (Julie Orton played Mimi in the girl/girl queer version). And every time, Northan amazes me with her generosity, her candor, her great big, open sense of humour and her fearlessness. Sexy, charming and sassy, as Mimi interacts with her date and gets to know him, she gets the audience to fall in love with him too. And along the way, we also fall in love with Mimi. Every single time.

With big shouts to Horak (the French waiter with just the right amount of snootiness) and Degenstein (the affable restaurant manager and professional, friendly motorcycle cop); producer/stage manager Marcie Januska (who took care of running improvised sound and lighting cues); and set designer Brandon Kleiman. And to Raymond’s date Abby, who got to see an audition/preview of Raymond on a date—and this was their first date!

This was a one-night only performance—and that’s the beauty of Blind Date. There’s a different date every show; and, for the first time in the production’s history, there are three rotating Mimis (Northan, Bruce and Degenstein). So you could see Blind Date several times during the course of the same run and never see the same show twice. What you will see every time is a unique, hilarious and poignant improvised theatrical experience, where Mimi takes care of her date, making sure he’s comfortable and having a good time. And making us fall in love with him in the process.

The implications of a kiss. When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date.

Blind Date continues in the Tarragon Mainspace till June 25; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as this is a very popular show. Make sure to get there early to catch the pre-show activity in the lobby; and stick around for a drink after the show.

When Richard met Mimi – all the nerves, humour & excitement of a first date in magical, sassy Blind Date

BlindDate_Final_webAfter recently seeing Rebecca Northan perform her solo show Troublemaker at this year’s Soulo Theatre Festival, at long last, I got to see the full-length version of her play Blind Date at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace last night. I’d fallen in love with Northan’s character Mimi and the show when I saw its 10-minute premiere at The Spiegeltent at Harbourfront Centre during World Stage in 2007, but the 90-minute version had eluded me. Well, no more my friends. And it was marvelous, brave, sexy and inspiring.

Blind Date begins in the lobby before the house opens, as Mimi circulates among the incoming audience members in search of her date. There are information alerts in the program and on signage regarding “consent to be romanced” – audience participation in the show, especially the individual chosen and his loved ones – and “consent to be videotaped/recorded.” The atmosphere of anticipation starts well before the show gets under way, as we wait and chat with our drinks, receiving welcome and a slip of paper containing a compliment from our handsome and affable scenographer/host (Kristian Reimer), and our lovely and attentive scenographer/server (Christy Bruce). Who will Mimi choose?

Blind Date goes beyond your standard on-the-fly improv show in that Mimi’s date is selected from the audience – a civilian, if you will. Oh, yeah – and Mimi is a clown. Not a circus clown, but a sexy French lady clown in a red dress and fishnets; a clown from the classical school of clown. Some stupid bastard has stood her up, leaving her waiting alone at the restaurant for two hours – and being the resourceful and proactive gal that she is, she finds herself a replacement date.

Last night’s selected date was Richard, a fit, married, 70-ish tax planner and South African by birth who likes to work out and once raced sports cars. His wife wasn’t with him last night, but he and the two friends who came with him were sure that she’d be okay with him going on this imaginary blind date. Before they get started, Mimi instructs him about the world of the play and the time-out space (either Mimi or her date can call a time out and move to a taped off corner of the stage to take a break from the world of the play, ask questions or strategize). She also tells him that, other than pretending to be single, he is to be himself. Blind Date may be a play of make-believe and improv, but it is rooted in truth and honesty.

Throughout the course of the date, we learn more about him as Mimi gently encourages him to share things about himself. A man who likes to live life on the edge, though not for some time, he espouses the philosophy that one must live life to the fullest. Mimi is extremely adept at coaxing information out of Richard, but far from a one-sided dynamic of sharing, Mimi also speaks of her life – real-life moments gleaned from Northan’s own life. In this case, some delightful coincidences emerge – just like in a real date. Mimi is charming, sassy, gently seductive and vulnerable. And truthful and honest, and very attentive to the comfort of her date.

Rebecca Northan as Mimi in Blind Date
Rebecca Northan as Mimi in Blind Date

The date travels from the restaurant to Mimi’s car (her uncle’s vintage car, actually) and an eventful and hilarious drive to her place (featuring a very funny performance by Reimer) to the condo (also her uncle’s) where she’s staying. At one point, Richard is left alone in the living room while Mimi goes to freshen up; he takes the opportunity to explore while he waits, and finds a copy of Henry and June, as well as some interesting items in a decorative box, on a side table. Game and a bit bashful at times, Richard did a marvelous job onstage. Who among us would be brave enough to kiss a stranger in front of a theatre full of strangers? And Mimi’s astute observation that he deflects uncomfortable moments with humour was spot on, as was her noting that this kind of response indicates that he was emotionally moved somehow in that moment.

They only took one time out. In this case, it was called by Mimi in order to set up how they were going to proceed: continue with the date or jump five years into the future. This choice is left up to the audience, who overwhelmingly choose the five-year jump, a choice that has been consistent throughout the seven-year, 400+ dates run of the show. Five years later, Richard and Mimi are living together, but not married – and she has a surprise for him.

A remarkable, entertaining, gutsy and moving piece of theatre. My friend Daria and I had a blast, and had a chance to chat with Northan after the show, where we found her chatting with a group of delighted Tarragon Theatre subscribers (the bar re-opens after Friday night performances, giving audience members the opportunity to chat with the cast). Blind Date always has Mimi paired with a male date (and there are five women trained to play Mimi now, including one who identifies as lesbian). Who knows? If Buddies in Bad Times decided to do a run of Blind Date – in Tallulah’s, say – Mimi would have the chance to kiss a girl. And she might like it.

With shouts to the design team of Brandon Kleiman (designer) and Jason Hand (lighting designer); and to SM and sound improviser Jamie Northan, and the lighting crew.

When Richard met Mimi. All the nerves, humour and excitement of a first date and beyond in Rebecca Northan’s magical Blind Date.

Blind Date continues on the Tarragon Mainspace till October 4 – check here for the full schedule and tickets. Christy Bruce, who also acts as the Mimi alternate, will take on the role of Mimi during weekend matinées, with Northan acting as the scenographer/server. Also please note some special events corresponding with the show: Blind Date Talkback Week (Sept 15-20) and Tarragon Tasting Night (Sept 25).

You can follow Blind Date on Facebook and Twitter, and check out the trailer on YouTube and the CTV interview with Northan.

Go see this – and see it again. It will never be the same show twice. Take a look at some audience reaction from opening night:

Toronto Fringe NSTF: An intense, startling & thought-provoking look at sexual violence in DINK

DINK-250x250Theatre-a-go-go explores the themes of sexual violence, society’s response and the celebrity of the villain in Caroline Azar’s DINK, on at the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival.

Inspired by the real-life case of former Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams, as well as incidents of missing/murdered women from marginalized communities/ethnicities, and the societal/social media bullying and shaming of victims and the families of the accused, DINK (the acronym for Double Income No Kids) is part drama/part musical/part social commentary, with songs by Azar, S. Lewis and sound designer Richard Feren.

Over lunch, a workout and shopping at Holt’s, sisters Lolly (Christy Bruce) and Deb (Sharon Heldt) talk about Lolly’s recent home security measures as daughter Bethany (Jasmine Chen) is being stalked, while Deb is up to her eyeballs with home renovation and contractors. Deb’s husband Bill (David Keeley) is a proud military man who’s served in Afghanistan, a sweetheart with his wife, but under investigation by homicide detective Matt De Souza (Kris Siddiqi) over two missing/murdered women who served under him: soldier Danielle (D.T.) Bryce (Andrea Brown) and Tim Hortons server Izzy Melisano (Lise Cormier).

The action shifts between present-day scenes in multiple scenarios and flashbacks from the past, as well as musical numbers featuring various characters, but mainly the two murder victims Danielle and Izzy (where the song breaks work best). The effect is disturbing, distracting and disorienting.

DINK highlights how victimization goes beyond the missing/murdered women to take in their families, the families of the predator (who are often blamed for not seeing what was going on and failing to blow the whistle) and the investigators. The play also sets out to raise up the victims of sexual violence – including moments of empowerment, some imaginary – and put the predator down. The serial killer, while his actions are monstrous, is not a monster – just a man. A very sick man and, in the end, a pathetic man lost in his revolting and dangerous obsessions and desires. The celebrity of the serial killer – and real-life villains in general – is a symptom of social illness.

Excellent work from the cast. Bruce brings a jaded, tired quality to Lolly, a fiercely protective mother with a wry wit, and an ineffective husband (invisible to us, but present in scenes of one-sided conversation). Heldt’s Deb is brash, irreverently funny and creative, an adoring wife throwing her energy into creating the perfect oasis at home. Keeley does a very nice job with Bill’s double life: a sweet and attentive husband at home; a misogynistic, homophobic bully of a commanding officer on the job, covering even darker activities in his personal time. Siddiqi brings a nicely layered quality to Detective De Souza, a good cop struggling with his personal, if not questionable, relationship with Izzy as he conducts the investigation. Brown’s Danielle is strong, cocky and direct, a woman of courage and conviction; and Cormier brings an intelligent, precocious charm to the adventurous Izzy. Chen does a lovely job with Bethany’s conflicted responses to her situation; a smart, imaginative and energetic teen – but, like her mother and aunt, the pressure of pretending that everything is alright becomes too much to bear and boils over.

DINK is an intense, startling and thought-provoking piece that reminds us to put our focus on the victims and their families – and cautions us on how we respond to the perpetrators and their families.

DINK continues its run until Sun, Jan 18 – book advance tix here.