BIRD FLU OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST written and performed by Jim Annan, Lauren Ash, Matt Baram, Scott Montgomery, Anand Rajaram and Naomi Snieckus, directed by Chris Earle. Presented by Second City (51 Mercer). Opens tonight (Thursday, June 8) and continues for a limited run, Tuesday-Sunday 8 pm, Saturday late night 10:30 pm. $20-$28. 416-343-0011. Rating: NNNNN
In comedy, you never know where your inspiration's going to come from. The new Second City show is called Bird Flu Over The Cuckoo's Nest and, like previous SC shows, it draws on our anxiety over current events, including the possible pandemic.
But cast member Matt Baram says he's drawn as much from the hockey playoffs as from news headlines.
"I'm from Edmonton, so the team's become a huge source of inspiration to me during the show's creation process," he says, dead serious. "They're grinders, they never give up. The only problem is that all the games start at 8 pm, which is the same time our show starts."
So come game nights, you can bet Baram and the rest of the six-person troupe will be huddled over a TV set in the show's green room during scene breaks and intermission. And in fact, pretty soon Baram will have his evenings back. Bird Flu marks his sixth and final mainstage show.
"It's sort of the law of diminishing returns," he says about his decision to leave Second City, where most performers stick around for five or six shows before moving on. "You can only do so much. Actually, it's a horrible time for me to go. There's a new theatre, a great cast, a new music director (Matthew Reid, replacing the beloved vet Bob Derkach). I love the direction the theatre's going in."
Baram will be missed. In the past three years he's created a number of the troupe's most memorable characters.
Among them are a twit of a British talk-show host, a libidinous tax evader and, in the last show's hands-down funniest scene, a nebbishy customer at a pizza joint who was convinced his pizza maker, Ahmed, was a terrorist.
"I love characters who have a racial or emotional Tourette's syndrome," he says. "They have an inability to hold back their prejudice or their massive generalizations. They're uncomfortably unacceptable. I think it's hilarious to put people in situations where they have to deal with somebody who's socially awkward. There's a line you should never cross, but riding that line is a lot of fun."
In person, Baram is soft-spoken and gentle, some sentences fading off into near indecipherability. It's no surprise that some of his characters and TV commercials, from Turtles to Tim Hortons draw on his slightly nervous, intimidated quality. Which makes his big onstage outbursts all the more surprising.
"I remember a time early on when I thought, "If I don't start to create more interesting characters while I'm here, I'll leave one day and look back unhappy.' When I did the British interviewer character, I got this great feedback.
"Some people said it was the first time in a while they had seen a character at Second City. I hadn't been around to watch other shows in the 80s and 90s but wondered why there wouldn't be more. This is what we do."
The facility with character could be Baram's theatre training showing. He studied acting in university at Edmonton, and showed up in Toronto hoping to score auditions for Shaw or Stratford. He didn't get them. Instead, he self-produced and starred in a musical inspired by the cult film Reefer Madness. The venue was the Tim Sims Playhouse, at Second City's old home. Then producer Steve Morel caught the show and told Baram about the company's auditions. Within a few weeks, Baram was accepted into the touring company.
A highlight with the Tourco came when the company was performing in the Muskokas and SC alumni Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara dropped in and joined the cast for some improv.
"It was one of those thrill-of-a-lifetime moments," says Baram, "that caught me completely off guard. I panicked."
He's since recovered, and recently played a comic choreographer/director figure in TV spots advertising Short's one-person show, now in previews.
As for the controversy over the title of the current show some people are complaining about it and SARSical Baram's philosophical.
"What else can we talk about?" he says. "People are concerned about it, so it's a zeitgeist thing. In a way, it's more difficult to talk about our involvement in Afghanistan, because it's more immediate. It's interesting that we have one scene about the war that's on the back burner now because we feel more people are going to die there, and it's going to take us into 2009 and probably beyond.
"But a supposed world pandemic that's going to come and we're not prepared for it and there's no known cure? How can you not be crazy over something like that? The point between uncertainty and death is a great place for comedy."