TED E’S FAREWELL TOUR
By David Strassman.
Is David Strassman a plagiarist? There’s a bit in his new show that had me knitting my brow and considering the possibility. He brings out a baby puppet, one of many who are auditioning to replace the soon-to-be-departed Ted. E. Bare. After a few gags, the baby sings Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma".
I took me a minute to work out why I was experiencing such a sense of déjà vu and then I figured it out:
(Song starts at 3.10)
What? How could this be? How could two ventriloquists (themselves pretty rare) do a variation on the same act in the same town in the same year?
Strassman’s bit was slightly different: his puppet didn’t pronounce the words but just sang in nonsense baby-talk. Close enough, though.
There were three or four options that came to me.
1: Strassman knew about Conti’s act and was passing it off as his own (bad)
2: Conti knew of Strassman’s bit and was passing it off as her own (bad)
3: Neither directly knew of each other’s bit but had coincidentally come up with the same idea.
This might sound a bit unlikely but it’s worth thinking about. There’s an interesting essay by Jonathan Lethem that addresses this idea of cultural syncretism. It’s not surprising that two artists would come up with very similar acts occasionally because they both live in a culture of sign exchange.
Lethem’s article begins by describing the novella Lolita – not Nabokov’s famous tale but a 1916 short story by a forgotten German which is bizarrely similar to Nabokov’s. Both feature a middle-aged traveller who falls in love with a child and is emotionally destroyed as a result. Both give the child the name Lolita.
Lethem wanders away from this curious case but others have tried to work out what happened here: coincidence? Outright theft? Or something else: cryptoamnesia, by which Nabokov knew of the earlier story but forgot it, thinking that he was writing something completely original.
I like this possibility, and it explains why familiar lines so often appear in song lyrics or films, or why writers and actors sometimes offer something that seems a direct rip-off of something else but do so in such an unselfconscious way that you can tell they think they’re being original.
Strassman and Conti might have heard of or seen the other’s work but forgotten about the Puccini bit on a conscious level – when they thought up a puppet singing Nessun Dorma it was really a memory.
4: One knew of the other’s bit and borrowed it but that’s ok.
This is a tricky one. Further into Lethem’s essay he writes about the way some kinds of artistic creation are “open source”: jazz and blues musicians frequently riff off other musicians’ compositions, for instance.
Stand up comedy is not open source – recycling another comedian’s jokes is a cardinal sin, in Melbourne at least. But in the older variety show world, standard acts were commonplace and it wasn’t unusual to see performers pulling out old favourites that long preceded them. This was, in fact, what a lot of audiences wanted.
Conti and Strassman are at a strange nexus of comedy and variety, really. Ventriloquism has its roots in the latter but these days is more commonly situated in the stand up world. Maybe that’s why I’ve seen two puppets sing the same song by Puccini this year. Hell, maybe countless puppets have been singing exactly that song for decades and both Strassman and Conti are nodding to a much longer tradition.
This is why Strassman’s show works for a lot of people and why it didn’t really do much for me. His shows are almost entirely what you expect from “a ventriloquist show,” and his puppets are absolutely archetypical (foul-mouthed wooden dummy, dopey bear, take-my-wife-please-style beaver). His artistry is extremely conservative – he fulfils your expectations rather than defying, subverting or questioning them. This has provided him with a very lucrative career and a massive fanbase. You know what you’re getting with Strassman.
But calling this conservatism isn’t a slur: we’re all guilty of it in various ways. If I’d rather see someone who challenges my expectations, that in itself is an expectation I want to see fulfilled (rather than challenged).
By My Darling Patricia
My Darling Patricia’s Africa is such a puppet show. It takes after bunraku, the Japanese style of puppetry in which puppeteers are usually visible to the audience (this caused a stir at Avenue Q, too, although that show featured onstage puppeteers for a very different effect).
Africa is unusual for a Melbourne audience for this style (which is put to incredible beautiful use here), as well as its subject matter. It follows three preteens living in a house of overwhelming neglect and abuse who develop their own fantasy worlds out of the chaos around them. It’s deeply depressing and cautiously hopeful at the same time, and I can highly recommend it.
It’s not a better show than Strassman’s, however; the two just have very different intentions and very different audiences, too. I know which I prefer, but can’t dismiss the other.
Africa features a gorgeous set, strong and difficult performances from both actors and puppeteers and a tight, often surprising narrative. The puppets themselves are magnificent and handled with an unexpected confidence and attention to detail - if you're not a fan of puppetry you'll still be wowed by what they do here and the freedoms their use open up for new ways of exploring a situation (it would be a much less of a show if these roles were played by humans).
It packs a lot into a brief hour, although the resolution is a bit quick and neat for me, and the final moments of the piece could have been drawn out a bit longer to leave a more lingering impression on the viewer. In fact, it's odd that a work that really respects imagination, both in children and its audience, doesn't give you much space to contemplate and fantasise yourself once the lights go down. That's my only quibble, and if those lights could stay down for another five or ten seconds before curtain call I'd be a happy fellow.
Here’s a neat twist: Strassman actually has made artistic inroads in one direction that goes well beyond the traditional practices of ventriloquism. For a while he’s been introducing automata and robotics into the show and there are several sequences in his new show that do away with the ventriloquist entirely, as electronically animated figures with prerecorded voices take over from the old hand-up-the-bum ones.
And these automata come from precisely the same historical institution as the kids in Africa – the Japanese ningyo that directly led to mechanical puppets and later robots. Plagiarism, homage, open source culture or tradition – it’s all mixed up in the ecstasy of influence, innit?