Grove Theatre stands up to comedy test

By Denis Grignon

Simon Cotter is a Just For Laughs veteran. Photo: Denis Grignon.

It shouldn’t work.

Standup comedians have always been steadfast in the necessary surroundings to ply their art. Chief among that list: four walls and a ceiling – preferably a low one – and a small, sparse performance area.

So, by all measures, The Grove Theatre’s massive outdoor stage should not befit a standup venue. And yet, by all accounts from last Thursday’s show featuring three veteran Canadian standup comedians, it did work. And quite nicely, too.

It wouldn’t be a stretch, in fact, to posit that the opening act on this 90-minute show was the venue itself. Nestled inside a hollowed-out section of mature trees, with landscaped tiers for raked seating – which you reach after a short walk in the woods on a paved path – it’s Greek amphitheatre meets the Hobbit’s beloved home, the Shire.

Still, comic emcee, Scott Harris, was able to find fodder in the environment, reminding the audience that this was, remember, a comedy show.

“I’ve never performed on an outdoor stage,” he admitted, almost immediately after taking the stage. He paused – timing, after all, is a big part of a standup’s tool kit – then added, “on purpose.”

“They had originally called this ‘The Groove,’” he continued. “But then the second ‘O’ fell off the sign.”

The crowd of about 200, most of whom were on the shadier side of middle-age, ate up Harris’s act, mostly built around his exploiting, instead of avoiding, his own, um, maturity. (A refreshing change from too many of his industry peers whose material clings to age 30 long after they saw that birthday). There were times, to be sure, when Harris, 67, came across as the curmudgeonly old man screaming at clouds. But, in this case, the clouds laughed heartily.

Gilson Lubin, said in an earlier interview that he’d welcomed the forced break from performing. And while there was a tiny bit of rust in the early part of his set, the Toronto comic who was born in the West Indies, quickly settled in, no doubt calmed by the unique surroundings. One of his bits, always funny, seemed more so on this night, given the natural environment. “Bigotry,” he told the audience, was a word he never comprehended in his youthful innocence. “I thought it was about the large oak in my neighbour’s front yard!”

For the show’s headline act, Simon Cotter, the Grove show marked his return to the stage after 18 months. Always a crowd-pleaser, the Just For Laughs veteran conceded that he delivered mostly a greatest hits from his 35 plus years of performing. It earned him steady laughs and even a few applause breaks. And there were brief moments of acknowledging the world – well, the one outside this Shire, that is. “Before Covid, I joined a gym,” Cotter offered, many in the crowd nodding their shared experience of more normal times. “And I took a fat test.” A pause, and then, “Yup, I passed.”

Perhaps the most illustrative moment of the uniqueness, and of-these-times, outdoor standup show was its closing. Cotter wrapped up his set with the requisite strong bit that’s guaranteed to garner big laughs. But instead of the “Good Night!” while walking off stage to recorded extro music and applause, as is the norm in, well, normal times, Cotter brought Harris back on stage.

Harris then took a stool – and a breath – and sang Simon and Garfunkle’s Sounds of Silence.  That would be anathema in a comedy club setting.

But on this night, surrounded by large trees and under the stars – where even the mosquitoes seem to give the audience a reprieve – it felt fitting, calming and maybe even necessary.

Denis Grignon is a professional standup comedian and journalist. He is also the producer of The Advocate Podcast: Stories from Kawartha Lakes, sponsored by Wards Lawyers.

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