Review: The Video Game Show (Bad Dog Theatre Company)

Retro 8-bit gaming blends with rapid-fire improv in The Video Game Show at Toronto’s Comedy Bar

I love video games. Ever since I was a kid I loved sitting in front of a screen and making pixelated characters run around fantastic environments, saving worlds using only my finely honed hand-eye coordination and wits. In today’s modern world, “Interactive Storytelling” has become a constant in our daily lives, which makes Bad Dog Theatre Company‘s Video Game Show an almost inevitable occurrence. Really though, is it surprising? Improv theatre is the most interactive of stage performances (short of the audience getting up and doing it themselves) and blends easily with the interactive soul of gaming; it’s a wonder it hasn’t been explored more often.

Upon arriving at Comedy Bar for the performance, I was immediately struck by the choice in décor the company made in the Main Stage area; dark lighting, lots of tinfoil and neon lights all framing a projected image of the demo program of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) port of Contra. It felt like I’d gone back to an early 90’s arcade, and aside from having some trouble getting around due to the near-darkness I already found myself getting into the mood for some 8-bit fun.

The Video Game Show‘s format is deceptively simple: each show the company picks an old game and plays through it with a guest player (in our show’s case, Norm Sousa of Discovery’s Never Ever Do This at Home), pausing after every level or so and giving the improvisers around 10-20 minutes to throw together short sketches based on what was seen.

Initially this sounded a bit clunky to me; it didn’t allow for a lot of audience participation and the gaming sections could feasibly have broken up the momentum. In practice however, this wasn’t the case. The gaming sections weren’t there just to show off the game and Sousa’s skills, they were there just as much to entertain the audience as the improvisation sections were. Sousa and the show’s host, Kris Siddiq are talented comedians and riffed on the game as they played, not only garnering laughs at some of the ridiculous concepts of the game, but also setting up hooks and gags for the improvisers to use in their sketches. It’s a slick choice that impressed me and actually had me looking forward to the gaming sections to see what insanity would appear next.

Equally impressive were the improvisers themselves. In my own limited experience with improv I’ve always been dependent on asking the audience or working within the structures of a specific game; with Bad Dog‘s troupe they just dove in, taking their cues from the hosts and their own observations of the game. If it weren’t for the occasional flop of a sketch (of which there were very few, an impressive feat in and of itself) I would have suspected they’d scripted some of them ahead of time.

Of course, with improvisation you’re going to have some stutter steps, and as my date Samantha pointed out, some of the cast members had a bad habit of staying within “safe” character choices and not taking as many risks as she would have liked. It’s understandable; improv is terrifying and sometimes it’s easier just to work within choices you know you can do, but for a cast as talented as we saw it was an unfortunate compromise.

In the end though, the most important part of The Video Game Show was that it was fun. Not only fun, but accessible. Video games from the 80’s and 90’s aren’t exactly a universal part of our cultural knowledge and Bad Dog could have gone the route of niche jokes and catering solely to a fan audience, but instead they kept things wonderfully simple, sticking with the information shared during the gaming sections and letting the story and humour flow from there. If you’re a fan of improv OR a fan of gaming, I wholeheartedly recommend dropping the quarters.

Details:

  • The Video Game Show is playing at Comedy Bar (945 Bloor St. W)
  • Performances are held on the last Wednesday of every month (Feb. 26, March 26, April 30, May 28)
  • Shows run approx. 1 hour from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM
  • Ticket Prices are $10 Regular/$5 Student
  • Tickets are available at the door, online at www.comedybar.ca or through the Comedy Bar Box Office at 416-551-6540.

Photo of Shauna Wotton, Alice Moran, Rob Norman, Sean Tabares, Kris Siddiq and Norm Sousa provided by the company.

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