PoCo dinner club serves up old-school variety show

Vancouverites seldom think about the burbs, let alone consider them for entertainment options. One small comedy troupe is trying to change that.

The Giggle Dam Dinner Theatre is based in the heart of downtown Port Coquitlam (yes, wise guy, PoCo has a downtown), providing fast-paced skits, impressions, and music three nights a week to people from all over the Lower Mainland-except Vancouver, it seems.

"When you say Port Coquitlam, they think 'Oh my God, isn't that by Merritt?'" says co-owner and star performer Mark Friebe of this big-city attitude. "We've been getting a lot of people from North Van of late, just because they're used to commuting. Bridges don't scare them."

For anyone who dares venture outside the city boundaries and take the 35-minute drive to the 240-seat theatre at 2616 Shaughnessy Street in Port Coquitlam, it's like a trip back in time to an era when variety shows were king. The venue's setup feels old-school, with long communal tables and the ambiance of a retro dinner club. And the tireless six-person cast knows how to massage laughs from anyone and has enviable musical chops. Sure, a lot of the jokes are plain hokey, but they're performed with such commitment, charm, and comedic flair you can't help but get taken in. ("My husband asked me for a quickie," one housewife character complains. "A quickie? As opposed to what?!") The jokes are often followed by-what else?-a rim shot from the drummer in the orchestra, which is only two guys but sounds like a lot more.

The current show is a tribute to the 1950s, '60s and '70s, called Dig Those Dam Decades: From Bobbi Sox to Bell Bottoms & Beyond and runs until October 1. Like all the Giggle Dam shows since 1997, it's written and directed by Friebe's wife, Sheila Sharma, who only stopped performing recently to give birth to the couple's first child. Her specialty is the song parody. You might hear a spot-on "Stevie Nicks" singing "Women, they will come or just pretend/And when they're done they'll tell their friends/Condoms only work right when you wear them..." or an empowered "Tammy Wynette" crying, "My D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today/That A-S-S-H-O-L-E will be going away".

The cast's infectious good humour not only entertains the crowd (amazingly, Friebe and company memorize everyone's names and incorporate them into the skits and songs) but also constantly causes the performers to crack each other up on-stage. Along the way, they constantly go off script. During the early days of each new show, the company really fine-tunes it with help from the audience.

"That's where a lot of the magic happens," says the 37-year-old Friebe, from his home in Maple Ridge. "It's the nervous energy that morphs the shows over the first two weeks that makes it what it is at the end. Sheila gives us the guts and the skeleton and then there's everybody's own personal take on what is written that makes it warm."

What's really unique are the preshow activities. Ticket buyers are asked to arrive by 7 p.m., a full two hours before the main-stage event, and are met by the full cast in costume, who mingle, play drinking games such as "Where's Your Dignity?", and announce the cocktail specials and menu for the four-course meal. And if that's not enough, they even serve dinner. ("It's surprisingly edible," quips Friebe).

This prelude to the show, called the "presell" by the actors, allows them to cut loose later on, when some fondling can occur in this most inclusive of shows. Men in the audience have been known to have their noses pushed into the cleavage of a randy songstress, while women have been pulled on-stage for an impromptu slow dance. "Presell is where we pick all of our targets and sort of warm them up to that," says Friebe. "You see them getting groped, but it's been a whole evening of slowly easing them into it and seeing who wants to play....We sell ourselves and win the audience before the show starts. You can imagine if we didn't do that. It would be a shocking nightmare for a lot of people in there!"

As someone who usually sits in fear at the thought of being singled out and brought on-stage, I was surprisingly willing and able should my name be called to participate, but I was spared. Perhaps my years of being phobic still show on my face. Friebe says they've been at it so long they can spot the people who just want to be left alone.

"If someone gets up there and they don't want to be up there and don't do anything, it's no fun for us, either," he says. "So it's really important that we try to pick someone that'll be fun but won't try to take over, either, and get out of hand."

The show, says Friebe, "isn't la-di-dah; it's not the Queen E....So I think PoCo is pretty good for us. It's fairly central. If we could just wake up some of the other people and let them know it's not the end of the world."

It's not, but as the old joke goes, you can see it from there.