As a frequent player in Manning Bar Theatresports, I can tell you that, to a large extent, the scene is still in the shadow of Steen Raskopoulous, former teacher and host. Some performances seem to be almost entirely inspired by his and Carlo Ritchie’s Bear Pack shows (which run at The Giant Dwarf in Redfern every month or so). Nuggets of wisdom about progressing scenes and playing character are still prefaced with “this was something Steen said to me once”.
And it is clear why. Steen plays character so vibrantly and honestly. His entrances always add significantly to scenes without steamrolling his team’s characters or ideas.
In his latest one-man show, Character Assassin, Raskopoulous continues his excellent character portrayal and physical performance and blends this with sketches and audience interaction. Throughout the show, not a single bit falls flat. Even one sketch, which had a pitiable young man preparing for a date in the mirror, only to be broken up with over voicemail had a perfect ending because there was an emotional payoff, rather than a comedic one.
Even in mostly fixed sketches such as these, Raskopoulous had a reactiveness to the laughs and energy from the crowd which is entirely necessary in comedy, especially one-person shows. It feels special, bespoke for a unique audience.
In a comedy culture fixated on punching up and not punching down, Character Assassin is a reminder that sometimes comedy doesn’t have to punch at all. It is refreshing to see someone play characters with love rather than cynicism. They are strange, largely improvised characters, like the Greek barber or the Orthodox priest film reviewer, and are made to work by the extraordinary amount of heart the audience is invited to invest in them. It is easier to keep people invested in scenes when their core intention is to pay tribute to something, rather than mock or deride it. That’s why Steen’s characters feel more real than those of some of his colleagues.
Improvisation on stage, even with skilled scene partners, is difficult. So you can imagine that improvising scenes with a cast randomly drawn out of the nervous, inexperienced audience would be trying. Steen does this well. About as well as you can do it, I think. Some fantastic moments arose when Steen was the focus of these scenes, with an audience member as a supporting role, challenged with reacting to Steen’s emotional offers. But the moments in the show that focused on the audience had a Thank God You’re Here-esque predictability I didn’t particularly care for. One sketch foregrounded an audience member playing a sign language translator for a speech that Raskopoulous’ character would make. Initially it was fun to see someone else making up strange hand gestures, and to see Steen’s character react to them, but after that I lost interest.
Aside from a few boring audience members, Steen’s on point emotional reactions were what made the show and it’s cast of unwitting audience members shine. He has an understanding of how to play character that should be duly recognised. It’s a fantastic show, and it’s very, very funny.