Please, dear reader, take care. The review you are about to read is one of extreme despair, disaster, and community-based youth empowerment in the arts. Recently, six teen editors, a word which here means “teenagers most unpopular in their high schools,” descended upon A Sequence of Wretched Events at Jet City Improv, inspired by Lemony Snicket’s infamous series A Series of Unfortunate Events. What followed was a night of improvisation, impressive stylistic details, and heavy Skittle consumption. Reader, be warned: this review is sure to lead only to despair, and we advise you to click away as quickly as possible. If you continue on this path, only wretched things await.
If you have chosen to continue reading this review, we must begin at the only place there is to begin, the beginning. We began with our narrator themselves, modeled after Lemony Snicket, introducing us to our main characters, two young girls reeling from their father’s death in a mountainous crevasse. The show followed these two as they embarked on a journey to find their father, because, in their words, “a crevasse is never a death sentence.”
The first half of A Sequence of Wretched Events was rather bewildering to the hapless editors whose only exposure to its inspiration was embarrassingly minimal. While the show should have been able to maintain a cohesive story entertaining to those without prior knowledge of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the first half was—disappointingly—as fragmented as a secret society, the editor’s relationships with their parents, or the vase they just dropped. Scenes layered on top of each other as characters, locations, and time moved around in a pattern resembling the macarena with weak transitions just barely holding the performance together. The jokes, like a good pancake should be, landed flat, and like a good pancake should not be, were increasingly complicated.
When all hope seemed lost for our dear editors, in the second half, A Sequence of Wretched Events thoroughly improved. Using just a little time during intermission, the cast crafted a conclusion that neatly wrapped up all the characters’ arcs; established strong themes; had genuine surprises; and even featured wholly original musical numbers that featured all the skill and stick-in-your-headedness of the Killer’s 2003 hit, “Mr. Brightside.” The second half, like the best kind of boomerang, came around to strike us, featuring that magic quality we had all come to expect of improv, where everything comes back around in a way that doesn’t seem made up on the spot.
Perhaps improv worked so unexpectedly well for A Sequence of Wretched Events because the books follow such a predictable formula, like all the math this editor so regularly avoids: several unfortunate and plucky children with useful niche skills, such as the ability to write compelling art reviews, are placed under the care of adults who are anywhere from mildly inept to actively malicious. As conspiracies unfold around them, they must draw on their resourcefulness and loyalty to each other to escape quirky villains and uncover the truth of their circumstances. As a book series, this gimmick got old. As a night of improv, however, this familiar structure gave the show a solid backbone to flesh out with jokes, audience suggestions, and improvised musical numbers.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is fundamentally fun because of its campiness, a word which here means over the top, gaudy, and extravagant (not a place to set up a tent or make s'mores—although that kind of camp can also be camp). Gothic aesthetics, over the top ironic angst, and dry humor characterize the original series, all of which carried over to Jet City’s version. That’s another reason why the book series adapted so well to an improvised performance. Since camp is about the predominance of aesthetics over content, visual elements like lighting (warm and dramatic), costuming (colorful, eccentric, and pseudo-Victorian), and improvised live accordion music created a dramatic and cohesive whole that kept the audience engaged even when jokes fell flat. Dear reader, while this review may have been one of extreme despair and disaster, Jet City Improv’s A Sequence of Wretched Events was most certainly not.
A Sequence of Wretched Events is running at Jet City Improv on January 9 – February 7, 2020. For event information see here.