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The Wonder Pageant’s gifted improvisers turned my day into holiday hilarity

The Wonder Pageant’s gifted improvisers turned my day into holiday hilarity
Entertainment
Kayla Lorette and Ron Pederson in The Wonder Pageant, an improvised holiday show at Coal Mine Theatre.  (Tim Leyes photo)

Created and directed by Kayla Lorette and Ron Pederson. Until December 23 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Coalminetheatre.com.

Toronto’s got a huge variety of live stage entertainment at holiday time, from Nutcrackers to pantos to Christmas Carols to . Why not throw improv comedy into the mix?

That’s the gambit behind Coal Mine Theatre’s The Wonder Pageant, which brings a team of six acclaimed improvisers together with music director Waylen Miki and stage manager Connor Low, all inventing material on the spot based on audience suggestions and some basic comedy-game frameworks.

An overall theme is diversion from soul-sapping news headlines (“The world’s a s--t factory on fire!” exclaims one cast member brightly) and general urban misery. Anna Treusch’s set convincingly evokes a crappy Parkdale basement, halls decked with bedraggled tinsel. If you thought the ugly-sweater bar could not drop any lower, get a load of what costume designer Sim Suzer has scraped together (Matt Baram’s “Let’s Get Lit” menorah pullover was my personal favourite).

The whole point of the show is that each evening’s going to be different (they’re calling every performance a world premiere) so what I comment on here will not be what the next audience sees. But I suspect there will be some similarities — framing the show with garbled-lyrics versions of Christmas songs; working the comic trope of cutting off material abruptly when it strays into inappropriate territory (as happened on opening night when non-consensual activity under the mistletoe was broached); constructing a situation in which two performers have to maintain a scene while weaving in random sentences that spectators submit in advance.

I never stopped laughing throughout the show because the performers are all so good at rolling with the punches, listening to each other, and knowing when to cut bait. Just when a scene with co-creators Kayla Lorette and Ron Pederson muttering intentionally inaudible lovey-dovey things to each other was in danger of getting too sweet, there’s Kris Siddiqi as a neighbour pounding on the wall implausibly accusing them of making too much noise. The company is also very good at bringing the audience in on topical meta-jokes about what is and isn’t appropriate to represent these days, as with two performers’ excruciated reticence to play a scene in Kabuki.

I even kept laughing when Jan Caruana tapped me as the subject of a “let’s recreate a day in your life” sketch: Our eyes were locked as she realized she’d chosen a critic, and dear readers, I have seen the face of fear. But also resilience: the whole company gamely turned the situation into comic lemonade, and I thank Paloma Nunez for her sinewy depiction of me fending off offended theatrical patriarchs while mountain biking in a Toronto ravine (a sequence revealing that Pederson is a close reader of the Star’s entertainment coverage — cheers, Ron!), and giving Air Canada a bad review for a cancelled flight (a strategy I shall adopt forthwith).

What made this all the funnier is the show’s ongoing theme, mostly voiced by Pederson, of improv comedy not getting the theatrical respect it might deserve. Early on the company takes the piss out of the usual seriousness of the Coal Mine’s fare. “Who the heck are we to play on this stage?” is the subtext expressed. In fact this show makes perfect sense in the intimate storefront space, offering welcome silliness as the days get colder and shorter.
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