Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
The Misfit League invites families to embrace their inner imposter syndrome, while laughing hysterically over sweet potato fries and aioli.
Sounds like a plan, right?
This brand-new show at The Second City has been created especially for children 4-12 years of age, but its multiple layers will appeal to all ages. Under the direction of Kirsten Rasmussen, actors Emily Richardson, Ted Hambly, Isabel Kanaan and Franco Nguyen play a range of roles (human, canine, even vaudevillian salespeople), and maximize opportunities for physical comedy, audience interaction, singing and dancing, while dashing through countless costume changes.
The story is set in Heroes Town, where heroes live and train at the Superhero School for Kids. Admission to the school is controlled by the judgmental Captain Cavalier, the leader of the JUSTness League, played by actor, comedian and filmmaker Franco Nguyen. “He’s like if the Captain of the Football Team was actually a superhero and became the Dean of a Superhero School for Kids,” explains Mr Nguyen. Captain Cavalier revels in myself-ery, admiring himself in his compact mirror and discussing himself in self-referential, hashtagged captions — egged on all the while by the school sycophants.
Everything at the Superhero School for Kids runs at a predictable status quo – at least until Adelia (played by Isabel Kanaan) arrives in town. She has unusual superpowers which are not easy to appreciate, though they are easy to mock. Naturally, Captain Cavalier relegates her to The Misfit League in the school basement, where she joins other “misfits”, including Garth (also played by Mr Nguyen). “He’s like Chuckie Finster from Rugrats,” he notes. “And his superpower is that he can make you dance for 30 seconds with the shake of his hand.”
With Black Panther being just the latest superhero movie to set box office records, superheroes “are the hot item of the day,” acknowledges Ms Rasmussen. “But also” she continues, “I think it’s just a metaphor that we can all delight in.” In truth, superheroes are potent and fun pop-culture symbols for ages, which first gathered deeper socio-cultural relevance in the 1970s with the rise of Marvel’s neighbourhood superheroes, like Spiderman, Luke Cage and Daredevil. The recent proliferation of the Marvel and DC universes in movies and television underscores just how deep a chord the superhero trope now strikes. The X-Men stories revolve around “mutants” or misfits among us who possess unexpected powers – a premise that Ms Rasmussen admits she has loved since she was a kid in the 1980s; “I loved the cartoon version of X-Men (which was recorded here in Toronto, I learned). I loved it. I loved the idea of a school for misfit teens who have powers that no one understands. Maybe because I was a weirdo kid in a small town in Saskatchewan with no drama or comedy program…. hopefully, this show will delight all kids who feel like misfits!”
The audiences’ giggles and guffaws on the afternoon that I attended with my family are a testament to both the power of this X-inspiration and the creativity she has brought to it. She avows that she is “‘a comedy gremlin’ (meaning I will do just about anything for a laugh)” – and as a result, she requires just about anything – and everything – from her four actors: “This show delights me because every performer gets to play a buffet of characters. The skills it requires are to be very versatile performers, with the ability to play many different, unique characters. Also, each of the performers sings and dances in the show!” “Gremlin” is no arbitrary moniker, given her considerable experience, including performing in Second City shows. “I performed in a Second City Family show years ago when I first started with the company and had an amazing time performing comedy for kids,” she enthuses. She is also a Second City Alumni of the Mainstage, for which she has written three shows. Finally, she is a master improviser, having won the Canadian Comedy Award for best Female Improviser. And this is all on top of her teaching and acting work on television and the web. Since retiring from Mainstage, she has become increasingly interested in directing comedy.
The Misfit League happens to be written by one of Ms Rasmussen’s favourite Second City Alumni, Leslie Seiler, who directed her years back in her Family Company show. Now, she is clearly delighted to be directing Ms Seiler’s work: “This cast is amazing!!!! And then it is about superheroes,” she reiterates — including a dastardly supervillain and faithful sidekick (played by Emily Richardson and Ted Hambly) — “I LOVE SUPER HEROES! Especially the ones who don’t fit in, the MISFITS!”
And that’s not all! When asked what else she would like to discuss, Ms Rasmussen does not skip a beat: “What am I most excited about in the show? THE MUSIC!!!” she enthuses, with her customary warmth. “All original music by the amazingly talented Ayaka Kinugawa. She is a fantastic composer and delightful human being. She brings so much joy and fun to her job, and you can see that in the show and in the songs. Being a composer for comedy is a very specific job, and Ayaka has all the skills needed to do it.”
However, just as the X-Men can be read as a metaphor for a number of marginalized communities, The Misfit League boasts depth beneath its lighthearted romp. Strong and resonant themes peek out: the importance of believing in yourself, helping others see the best in themselves, fostering inclusion and belonging, and celebrating difference. At a time when anxiety is on the rise (especially among adolescents) and the need to attend to mental health is paramount, the show’s message could not more significant or timely. Mr Nguyen agrees that, at its heart, this show is about people who are unconventional, and questions the assumptions we make about who and what to value: “What good is super strength when the people around you are hurt by your actions?” he muses. “Does saving the town from danger give you the passport to hurt people around you?”
In the show, Adelia challenges convention, and teaches by example what superpowers really are – while humanizing the heroes and villains alike who surround her. Mr Nguyen admits that before this show, he had associated superpowers with one’s physical abilities, whether super strength, speed or X-ray vision. “But there is a real challenge,” he acknowledges – and a real heroism – “in breaking from the pack and trusting your heart.” Yes, Captain Cavalier can fly and has super strength, “but we learn that Adelia’s compassion and the ability to see the best in others makes a difference, and her impact on others is much more profound.”
The Misfit League plays during the upcoming March Break. Given the importance of the content, the strength of the concept, the versatility of the performers – and, don’t let me forget, the absolute hilarity of the show – it is ideal for families or school groups. And don’t worry, parents, while your kids are alternately amused and enthralled, you, too, will be entertained in your own right. In the best Second City tradition, there are fast-moving asides and laugh-inducing quips aplenty that will fly right over your children’s heads . . . because they are aimed right at you.
So pack up the kids and their cares, and bring them to celebrate their inner misfit selves this March Break. As Ms Rasmussen accurately attests, the show is “fast moving, very funny and has a whole bunch of heart.” And it definitively proves – without moralizing or sentimentalizing – that different is dandy!
Whether or not you choose to order the sweet potato fries and aioli, you have to admit: that definitely sounds like a plan!
News You Can Use
What: The Misfit League, featuring Emily Richardson, Ted Hambly, Isabel Kanaan and Franco Nguyen; Written by Leslie Seiler; Directed by Kirsten Rasmussen; Musical Direction by Ayaka Kinugawa; Stage Managed by Sam Polito
Who: Audiences 4 – 104 years of age
When: March 10-18, 2018
Where: The Second City Mainstage, 51 Mercer Street, Toronto, ON
Tickets and Info: TheSecondCity.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya