Theatre review: The Gay Mafia raises the stakes

Reinventing the Theatresports improvisational theatre genre is never easy, as there are only so many Theatresports games that can be played.  What most improv troupes do instead is to find a new way in which to frame those games.  The Vancouver Queer Arts Society not only creates that new framework in The Gay Mafia, but raises the stakes even further by presenting its second half as an improvised musical.

Vancouver's Queer Arts Society presents The Gay MafiaThe Don of the Gay Mafia (played by David C Jones in the performance we saw) is looking to retire.  He has gathered six of his most trusted lieutenants (Alan Pavlakovic, Amy Fox, LeeAnn Keple, Aaron Essex, Kevin L Smith, Diana Li) to compete in a series of improv games, with the winner succeeding him as the new head of the Gay Mafia.  In a twist, The Don commands his underlings to bring the improv games that scare them the most to perform.  With audience members picking both the games and players randomly, the actors either dodge a bullet as their competitors are forced to play the game, or they are hit with their own worst nightmare.

While having the audience randomly choose both the game and players helps keep the competition fair, it also highlights one of the show’s faults: the unevenness in who is picked for the scenes.  In the performance we saw a majority of scenes were given to the same few players, while others sat on the sidelines.  While it may be totally random, it certainly didn’t allow for a fair allocation of scenes among the actors.  Perhaps some intervention by The Don himself would ensure each actor receives equal stage time.

The games are pretty typical Theatresports fare and, as with most improv, can be hit-and-miss.  As the cast and games change each night the results will vary greatly, but on this particular night the first half highlight was a hilarious tale of life and death at the 7-11 in a game of Spoon River featuring LeeAnn Keple, Kevin L Smith, Diana Li and Amy Fox.

With the traditional improv games complete in the first half, the second half is all about raising the bar with music.  But before we get to the good stuff, another twist pits members of the audience against each other in their own improv game.  While this seemed more of an unnecessary distraction, it did lead to one of the biggest surprises of the night as the winner of the audience game chose to stick around for the musical portion of the night.

Helping the cast with their improv musical was Matt Grinke on piano (who shares duties with Ty Lowe on alternating performances), who seemingly pulls music from thin-air to fit the action that is happening on stage.  On the night we saw, the story revolved around a trip to Pasadena and, in an ironic twist given it was a fundraiser for Out In Schools, featured homophobic unicorns.  Highlights came from Kevin L Smith and Alan Pavlakovic, with David C Jones ensuring the narrative moved along nicely.  And while at times the singing was barely audible, you can’t help but admire the risks these actors (and one audience member) take in creating a musical based on suggestions by the audience.

The Gay Mafia not only brings a fun (and often times funny) queer sensibility to the improv genre, it also marks the move of this group into a real theatre.  Without having to compete with a noisy bar environment it gives the actors an opportunity to be seen without distraction, warts and all.

3 1/2 of 5 StarsThe Gay Mafia

Directed by David C Jones.  A Queer Arts Society presentation.  On stage at the Jericho Arts Centre through January 12, 2013.  Visit http://queerarts.ca for tickets and information.

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