On Sept. 30, I went to the Globe Theatre to see Dot and Mae: Delusions of Grandeur, an improvised play performed and created by Judy Wensel and Lucy Hill. The performance didn’t meet the expectations I had going into the show, but instead changed the way I think about improvisation.
Personally, when I hear of improvisation, I think of the shows I’ve seen on television like Whose Line Is It Anyway? Performers like Colin Mochrie or Ryan Stiles would make up two- to five-minute skits based off of audience suggestions.
My point is, shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? make improvisation look easy. In reality, performers must think of a story on the spot, make each character distinct and unique from the next, and be funny at the same time. It seems practically impossible.
Given this, I wasn’t sure how the two performers were going to use improvisation to create a full play. However, Hill and Wensel accomplished this feat. For close to an hour, they had the audience completely invested in the story they were telling and creating on the spot.
Dot and Mae are two nurses who take care of patients in a mental hospital during the 1940s. Throughout the play, the audience witnesses the two nurses’ interactions with each other and the patients they look after. Wensel’s character, Mae, is the perfect contrast to Hill’s character, Dot. Mae takes her job as a nurse quite seriously, whereas Dot is eccentric and, sometimes, downright strange.
The way Hill and Wensel establish their characters in the play is interesting. After taking suggestions from the audience, the performers introduced the characters of Dot and Mae. At different times, Dot and Mae go to check on a patient, whose name and hobby has been suggested by the audience. In front of everyone, Hill and Wensel flesh out the character of the patient. In a spotlight, we are introduced to the patient’s world, where rules of the normal world do not apply. Dot and Mae serve as a touchstone throughout the play to provide some relief from the weird fantastical worlds of the patients.
During the performance, we met patients Molly, the cat-whisperer, and James, the bird-observer. There must have been an animal fixation in the air that night because both suggestions just so happened to deal with animals.
Molly owned a cat named Felix, a tom cat whose only desire was to impregnate the rest of the female cats. James had an unwelcome admirer from a bird that he watched, whose name was Susie. That’s right, a bird had a crush on a human. As unrealistic as talking animals are, Hill and Wensel somehow had the audience invested in Felix’s desire to sire children, and Susie’s longing for a date with her observer. In the world of improvisation, anything can happen.
Eventually, the worlds of Molly and James collided. In a hilarious conclusion, Molly was thrown from the window of her “cat lair” by her own cats, after Susie and the rest of the birds made the cats realize that they didn’t have to listen to their owner. Susie also acquired a date with James. It was a classic love/cats-overthrowing-their-evil-overlord narrative.
Because the play was performed by two people, it was sometimes confusing when there was supposed to be multiple characters on stage and Hill and Wensel were jumping from place to place, alternating between playing a character and being the narrator. At times, it would have benefited the audience to have one extra person to play a character.
Despite the confusion, the play was definitely exciting. Come on, admit it, we’ve all fallen asleep, or thought about falling asleep, during a play. When the lines are scripted, sometimes the actors seem bored with their own production. However, with Dot and Mae, the audience realizes that Hill and Wensel have little to no idea as to where the story is going. As a result, the audience watches intently, wondering what will be next.
One last feature that really held the piece together was the music. Hill and Wensel were accompanied by musician Jeremy Sauer. At times, he would play single notes on a piano to match the steps Felix would take as the cat crossed the stage; at other times he would play a general song to set the mood of the scene. The improvised accompaniment really complemented Hill’s and Wensel’s performance.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Dot and Mae: Delusions of Grandeur. At times, the story was chaotic, but the fun part was watching to see how exactly Hill and Wensel were going to clean up the mess they had created. I would give this play a rating of four out of five, though it feels weird to give a rating on such an unorthodox play. How about four angry cats out of five love-sick birds? Never mind, stick with the normal rating.
The neat thing about this play is that, even after this review, it can and will surprise you. Each night the show is on, Hill and Wensel come up with an entirely different play. The next show is scheduled Sept. 29 to Oct. 8. Tickets are $20 plus GST.