Review: Would You Rather…? (The Weaker Vessels)

weaker vessels

Toronto’s The Weaker Vessels present Would You Rather…?, a sketch comedy show that may have left the audience in stitches but still managed to fall short

I’m not a comedian. So in reviewing The Weaker Vessels, I brought one along.

We’ve covered these guys before, and they sounded right up my alley: clever, existential, absurdist and whip-smart sketch comedy. All five performers are pedigreed: the programme is literally filled with Second City This and Upright Citizens That. And tonight, we were promised an evening of good, not-altogether-clean fun, casting a jaundiced eye towards the theme of choice.

Jokes were told. People laughed. But on the whole, my guest and I both wished they’d made different ones.

The heartbreaking thing about this show was that, after the first few sketches, a rhythm emerges. We meet one or two interesting characters with serious comic possibilities: an over-the-top French teacher; people in a bar talking about the awkwardness of sexual rejection; a group monologue about handsomeness. These sketches uniformly open well, and consistently get laughs. Initially.

But then, far too often, more and more stuff and people and ideas get dumped into a sketch until it collapses under its own weight. One scene in particular, involving Shakespeare and cunnilingus, is clever and interesting and rowdy and hilarious–until someone else shows up to make throwaway jokes about quiche and obesity. Yes, people laugh at the man in the dress stuffing imaginary pastries into his face, but instead of escalating the sketch, this has the effect of shutting it down. And when the third character leaves, we need to be reminded why we’re watching the other two. The energy just gets sucked out of the room.

I call this “heartbreaking” because it is. These people can write funny. These people can be funny. And when they stick to simpler material–especially the opening sketch, which I’d go so far as to call insightful–they are. The entire troupe (especially Colin Sharpe and Jeff Clark) play well together and clearly relish the collaboration.

And I’m probably making this sound far worse than it was. There are several sketches which are consistently funny from beginning to end, (My guest especially liked an encounter between a Shakespearean ham and a nativity play.) and the Weaker Vessels have got a knack for hitting just the right note when broaching a raunchy subject.

But the problem with comedy is that, once you lose the energy, you’re done. If a sketch suddenly collapses about 90 seconds in, it doesn’t matter how deep and thoughtful the narrative of the scene might be: the audience stops following. They’re still going to laugh at the zany faces and the pants coming down and the man being pelted with handfuls of sand, but if you were hoping to get away with more than sight gags and awkward “I can’t believe he just said that!” giggles, you’ve just wasted all that effort on a room which has stopped listening.

And that, gentle reader, is heartbreaking.

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Image of Allan Cooke, Colin Sharpe, Jeff Clark, Nadine Djoury and Lance Byrd by Paul Barnes.

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