“I was a fine idea at the time,” Elvis Costello once sang. “Now I’m a brilliant mistake.” That lyric’s been on your susceptible scribbler’s mind during this review. The Guild’s new improv soap opera Meanwhile in Ward 16 is full of brilliant mistakes, which is part of its considerable charm.
Created by Kassinda Bulger, father-son funnymen Cameron & Rob MacDonald (also the show’s director), Nancy McLure, Graham Putnam and Matthew Rainnie, Ward 16 is a weekly improvised theatrical soap opera in which the show’s five actors (the creators minus Rainnie) play multiple pre-sketched characters in a series of six loosely pre-plotted episodes where much of the dialogue and action is made up as they go along.
It’s heavy on the déjà vu for this reviewer, and not just because all six creators are PEI theatrical veterans with robust improv chops. To supply both context and full disclosure, I’ve worked with most of these folks before, including teaming with McLure, Putnam, the elder MacDonald and others on the similarly semi-improvised soap opera Enemies many years ago at the same venue.
Like Enemies, Ward 16 boasts distinctively odd characters in an interlinked cluster of ongoing, soap-operatic storylines; but where Enemies showcased fantasy elements like mad science, evil twins, alien technology, human clones and psychic phenomena, Ward 16 is more grounded in terms of both its characters and its titular setting, a fictional city ward ruled with a ham-handed iron fist by dopily folksy city councilor Jamie Cox.
Rob MacDonald excels at this kind of PEI-centric local focus (see his recent St. Anne, Saviour of Lost Souls play and chunks of his Annekenstein sketch catalogue for examples); thanks in part to that quirkily localized lens, Ward 16 – the place, not the play – becomes a character all its own, fleshed out by its creators’ pre-fabricated locations and lore, by the actors’ on-the-fly embellishments of same, and by oddballery aplenty stuffed into the show’s program (packaged as the Ward 16 newsletter) and the project’s social media postings.
It’s a bit disappointing that Rainnie – a co-founder, with Rob MacDonald and others, of the seminal 4Play improv quartet – remains offstage here, but his five collaborators all play multiple characters, often hilariously, so we’re not getting shortchanged comedy-wise. In addition to MacDonald’s Cox, standouts include Putnam’s faded rock star Kirby, McLure’s crazed recluse Penny, some creepy convicts (especially Bulger & the younger MacDonald), Putnam’s amiable arsonist Mitch, and Cox’s bizarre hench-trio “the Boyce” played by Cameron MacDonald and a pair of conjoined, delightfully unconvincing mannequins.
It’s not a perfect show – Bulger’s vocal projection doesn’t always fill the Guild space, for instance – but even the imperfections are often fun. As with any improv, there are screw-ups and/or questionable choices, but the cast often seems to enjoy these misadventures, so the audience does too; and in the “brilliant mistake” category, special citations for unwitting comedic genius go to the oft-malfunctioning “Boyce” mannequins (the crowd loves them) and the repeatedly misplaced, mixed-up “Meanwhile” title cards used to identify the play’s shifting locations, an oft-dysfunctional device which morphs into a mildly sadistic running gag.
If all that’s not enough to hook you, week one ends with a suitably sudsy cliffhanger: the apparent murder of Jamie Cox! Tune in next week to see how it all turns out…