here are not many things in life that can be counted upon quite as steadfastly as The Sunday Service. Week after week, through very occasional venue and lineup changes, and regardless of extreme weather phenomena and political upheaval, Vancouver’s beloved improv troupe have been able to put on an improv show every Sunday for close to fifteen years.
It only seems reasonable that a global pandemic, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, that has sent stocks plummeting, toilet paper to mysteriously vanish from shelves worldwide and governments across the globe to declare states of emergency, lockdowns and quarantine zones, along with an ever-growing population of people infected by the vaccine-less virus known as COVID-19, would caused this improv troupe to take a week off.
But on March 15, after widespread calls for social isolation, and “non-essential” businesses to close their doors indefinitely, Taz VanRassel, Ryan Beil, Caitlin Howden, Kevin Lee, Emmet Hall and Mark Chavez did it anyway — Aaron Read featured in an instagram live pre-show broadcast from his own home. Instead of performing to their usual packed room at the Fox, the Sunday Service had only a camera operator and sound person in the room with them. But with close to 400 audience members tuning in from their own home, the improv troupe had plenty of virtual support.
With Chavez taking on hosting duties, the set got off to a somewhat shaky start, as the typical audience warm-up / introduction segment was met with applause and responses coming from their fellow improvisers. For example, Emmett Hall’s question for the crowd, “What do you think my dad’s cousin Francesca is doing in Rome right now?” only elicited a “She’s fine,” from Chavez and VanRassel.
While it was easy to forget about the pandemic that caused this strange Sunday Service situation, little instances of the global health crisis did slip endearingly onto the stage, including a quick hand sanitizer break near the beginning of the show, as well as the awkwardness of not being able to touch each other during the “freeze” game. The energy usually associated with the Sunday Service shows was sufficiently lacking, yet the six comedians managed to gain some momentum through the short-form improv games. Since all the suggestions, usually coming from the audience, came from themselves, introspection and self-analysis of their own scenes and characters did, at times, run rampant. The game “Question Period” was especially guilty, as Howden and Mark almost immediately started feuding by questioning each other’s questions, diverging from the barely established vampire-based scene.
But as the show went on, the six improvisers managed to dispel any of their earlier apprehensions with performing to an empty room, by doing what they do best and committing themselves to an ever-evolving and labyrinthine story line. Each performer played multiple roles, in the complex narrative built around a couples’ games night hosted by two seductive losers, an ensemble of linguistically advanced lobsters and an embarrassed son named Puzzle. With some exceptional accents from Beil and VanRassel, as well as Lee’s truly understated quips coming throughout the entire show, the Sunday Service pulled off a quintessential show, as if the world outside of their always ridiculous scenes wasn’t crumbling around them.