The Amy Poehler and Tina Fey of Canadian clowning, Morro and Jasp have been getting more interesting and ambitious with each passing show. Last year at Factory Theatre, Toronto's much-loved clown "sisters" (played by Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee) jerked some serious tears with a poignant Steinbeck homage called Of Mice and Morro and Jasp.
Now, in their new Factory offering, Morro and Jasp: 9-5, the red-nosed pair set out to satirize the anxieties and absurdities of today's business world. And while this show doesn't quite match its predecessor, which was a career high, it does have – to use the corporate-speak it cheerfully parodies – plenty of growth potential.
Where Of Mice saw the impoverished sisters reduced to panhandling, 9-5 finds them self-empowered as shiny-eyed entrepreneurs. They've created JMI Industries, of which bossy Jasp (Lee) is, naturally, the boss, while the zany Morro (Annis) is "lower management." They've got their own logo, which looks suspiciously like an apple – make that, Apple – core. And they've come up with a suitably catchy slogan: "JMI, where the future is tomorrow."
Now, all they need is a product.
No hurry for that – it's on Jasp's agenda, after she arranges her desk and establishes an office hierarchy. But then word comes that a major investment group is dropping by, sending Jasp into a paralyzing panic while Morro scrambles to create something for them to invest in. If JMI doesn't fly, the two won't just be out on the street, Morro will also be out of a kidney – Jasp has offered her sibling's organ as collateral in order to get a startup loan.
In a breezy 85 minutes, the duo (who also wrote the show) touch lightly on all things work-related, from labour unrest to water-cooler chat, with plenty of office gags involving voice-mail messages, paper shredders, intercoms and the like. The slapstick centrepiece is a factory routine with a treadmill-turned-conveyor belt (shades of a certain classic I Love Lucy episode). The show's climax is a pitch session that lampoons Dragons' Den. Both scenes include audience participation, but as always, Morro and Jasp are so gentle and undemanding that even shy theatregoers are apt to leap to their feet and volunteer.
That gentleness is part of the duo's charm. Their act may be a sororal variant of Laurel and Hardy – or Joey and Auguste, if you want to use traditional clown terms – but they add to it a childlike sweetness and innocence. They look like overgrown kids – gawky Morro with her red shorts and untamed hair, sturdy Jasp with her little blue dress – and they have a way of making even a stressed-out office environment seem as innocuous as a kindergarten classroom.
That means they might not have the capacity for dark, edgy satire in the manner of their Canadian forerunners, horror clowns Mump and Smoot and Karen Hines's cute-but-toxic Pochsy. But it does allow them to get away with being unabashedly sentimental and have the audience turn gooey along with them. A Morro and Jasp show almost invariably ends as a love-in.
This one certainly does, with the pair handing out paper, pens and stickers, and encouraging the audience to create cards for people they love. You'll leave the theatre glowing over this warm 'n' fuzzy antidote to cold capitalism, but also with a nagging impression that the show could be funnier. For a comedy team, Annis and Lee do very little physical business together this time out, with Annis handling most of the slapstick alone. She has a great surreal sight gag involving a radio and a wall socket, but her other bits aren't fully realized. Her elaborate treadmill routine, in particular, promises more laughs than it delivers. Maybe somebody should go back and look at that Lucy skit again.
That said, there are witty flourishes in director Byron Laviolette's Factory Studio staging, with stirring music from Lyon Smith and what Jasp calls "executive lighting" by David DeGrow that spoof inspirational corporate videos. (Full disclosure: Laviolette and I are fellow members of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association – but we critics tend to be hardest on one another.) And if you were wondering, yes, the Dolly Parton song 9 to 5 is included – sung like a dirge by Morro on the ukulele.
Morro and Jasp: 9-5 is a promising product worthy of your time. But it could use a little more brainstorming if the two want to remain industry leaders in the cutthroat world of clowning.