Review: Flying blind on a date with Tess Degenstein in creative creation running at GCTC

Tess Degenstein is Mimi in Blind Date. Photo: Bankomedia

Going to the theatre is like a blind date. You get linked up with a play or person you know little about. You commit to spending an hour or two together. And off you trek, hoping something great happens but aware the opposite may occur.

If your unknown companion is Blind Date, playwright Rebecca Northan’s playfully smart creation now at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, you can relax, this is probably going to be a good time.

Why the qualifier? Because there’s a big unknown in the mix and it changes every night. While one half of the show, which is about a blind date, stars Tess Degenstein as the vivacious Mimi, who’s visiting Ottawa from her home in Avignon, France, the other half – Mimi’s date – is a “willing” audience member.

Selected before the show (you’ll spot Mimi chatting up prospective guys, and their real-life dates, in the lobby), the man may have a very rough idea of where this is going to go. But it’s rough, and the show, which depends on a degree of improvisation and spontaneity, changes every night.

There is, of course, a trajectory. Mimi, who wears a red clown nose at all times, “selects” her date from the audience (anxiety ripples among the men as she casts about for a partner). The two then stand stage right in a small “time out” area where she sets a few ground rules. That includes permission for them both to call a time out if they feel a need to break from the show or want an explanation.

Then, over the next 90 minutes or so, the two meet in a restaurant for a blind date with all its initial awkwardness, hop in her car and wind up at the apartment she’s borrowing from her uncle.

This is risky stuff for everyone.

Degenstein, although blessed with a spidey sense of others, doesn’t know what is going to come out of her date’s mouth when the two of them are under the lights and in front of an expectant audience.

Her co-star, meanwhile — on opening night, a funny, go-with-the-flow fellow named Thomas – is very much one of us, someone who’d rather be in the audience than in front of it and someone with his own bundle of personal history, fears and dreams that he likely keeps behind the mask of daily life (the show, as you may have guessed, is in part about how we perform ourselves in public, what we choose – or at least try – to keep private and what we reveal).

And it’s risky for those of us watching. That guy up there is us. How is he going to handle the forward, inquisitive Mimi? Is he going to be able to navigate the unexpected twists and turns of not just being suddenly cast in a show but cast in a show about the uncertainties of a blind date with a woman who’s clearly got designs on him? And how is his real-life date going to react to the situation?

“I’m a very composed and successful individual with no emotional issues,” said Thomas to Mimi early in the show, tongue planted firmly in cheek. It was a smart, instinctive move, helping him stake out how he was going to handle this stage stuff while simultaneously gaining the audience’s trust and goodwill by signalling that he was, like the rest of us, a flawed human being and one with a winning sense of self-deprecation.

As Mimi, Degenstein is skilled in supporting her opposite number. She’s respectful, nudging him to see where he’ll go but offering a safety net if he gets too far out on that high wire of self-revelation and feels himself abruptly tumbling.

She also guides the show into that territory which is the heart of theatre, the place where fact and fiction intersect and where audience and performers become one. In fact, on opening night I found myself forgetting Thomas was an audience member and falling, quite happily, into his stories about his family and his job (he answers letters from the general public on behalf of the prime minister) and relishing his growing ease with Mimi.

I also stopped noticing Mimi’s clown nose. Initially a reminder that this is artifice and meant to be playful, that nose becomes part of her as performance and reality mingle and the fourth wall, with which Degenstein plays so adeptly, vanishes.

It’s a brave, often hilarious and engrossing effort by Degenstein.

Will it happen this way tonight or tomorrow with different men on stage? Who knows.

But if it does, you may find yourself hankering to try a blind date, just to see where it goes.

Blind Date is a Spontaneous Theatre production. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until  Dec. 17. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.