Listen to the hand

Puppetguy

YOU said what?! Conrad Koch (right) with his famous puppet, Chester Missing. Photograph courtesy Montecasino.

HE’S BRUTALLY HONEST, outrageously politically incorrect and aligns farting and bum jokes with political ones. He also fits, head over heels, into a suitcase. If you haven’t yet ‘met’ Chester Missing, and heard his repartee, experienced his friends and gotten a laugh or six out of his shtick, you shouldn’t consider yourself a dinkum theatre goer.

Not yet ten years on stage, he piqued the interests of journalists in 2014 when his Oscar Pistorius jokes reached beyond what some considered polite. At the end of ventriloquist Conrad Koch’s ‘talking hand’, Missing is the bald guy with tiny limbs, googly eyes and a huge opinion. On everything.

In Koch’s latest production, Puppet Guy, Missing is central to the show, but not all you will laugh at. It’s a well-directed piece which doesn’t allow too much of a foray into strictly political jibes. Goodness knows, our world is unbelievable enough, politically, and remains one of the best script writers for comics all over the world – but there’s the rub. There are so many would-be political jesters out there right now – on stages, on social media, in your own back yard, that the giggles and gags, the poking of fun at De Lille and Zille, at Trump’s orangeness and everyone else’s insanity, has wilted a tad.

So, just before your grin begins to melt on your face, Missing is wafted away in his suitcase, and other tricks hold sway – you meet Hilton, who is a combination of a sock, a slipper, some fierce looking specks and a lot of rudeness; a dangerous mosquito with loose eye-balls and no wings; a DJ who takes hold of Koch’s toes and uses them to full effect, and other charming creatures.

The piece de resistance of the show is, however, Koch’s stage presence and easy audience engagement. There’s a cheerful briskness in the manner in which he brings members of the audience into their own on stage, and a delicious evilness in which he demonstrates his deft skill in putting words into their mouths, quite literally.

Ventriloquism, like hypnosis, is a kind of parlour trick which skirts on the dangerous, but used in a safe and entertaining context, will make you laugh. Why? Because you’re looking at the unexpected, the uncontrolled, the ordinary guy who in a second turns into a purring lion with a squeaky voice. Yes, it’s juvenile and unnuanced in its approach, but that is what keeps you laughing like a child. The freshness of mischief blended with deeply jibes and pokes and a curtailment just as you feel your interest beginning to wane, mixed with good skills and a delightful troupe of stage presences keeps this show on its toes.

Humbug, opaque Victorian language and a ghostly trio

Please Note: This production contains halogen lights shone directly into the audience’s eyes.

ChristmasCarol

BAH! Scrooge (Jason Ralph) on a bid to discover the ghost of Christmas Present. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

IT SEEMS THAT Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is the flavour of the season this year. There are no less than three manifestations in Johannesburg of this Victorian cautionary tale about a miser and how his ways have been changed by ghosts of his past and ghosts that point the way to a dire future, if he keeps up his parsimonious and downright horrid behaviour. This production, staged under the directorial pen of Elizma Badenhorst, she of the impeccable The Mystery of Irma Vep staged earlier this year at this theatre, lacks the pizzazz and directorial wisdom you might have expected.

While there’s nothing wrong with paring down a great classic and rendering its detail and texture bold and direct – as you may have seen in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of A Seussified Christmas Carol – it needs to be slick and carefully handled. And cognisance needs to be taken for people in the audience who are not completely familiar with the original story.

This production pulls out all the audio-visual tricks in the book. Some of them are astonishingly achieved, with animation, puppetry and masks, and a great sense of spooky whimsy is at times evoked. And there’s a fantastic quotation from the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist who made portraits using painted foods – in the form of a giant and rambunctious mask but you need to be seated appropriately to get to see it.

Alas, the magic and whimsy evoked by some of the animation and the presence of the ghosts is not the general flavour of the work, however. At times the animation and the conflation of overhead voices and miming feels glaringly amateurish. At others, the Victorian nature of the text overwhelms the action and even the scariest of spooks with clanking chains and appropriately placed howling, doesn’t succeed in driving the work.

And then there’s the lights. It’s difficult to understand how and why a team headed by someone capable of creating as fine and focused a piece as The Mystery of Irma Vep would resort to the lumpen trick of blinding the audience with bright lights. As you sit there with your eyes closed or heavily shaded from the harsh halogen glare, you vaguely wonder what is being covered up here – because this is exactly what it feels like.

Having said all of that, Jason Ralph in the key role handles the miserly old Ebenezer with aplomb. He’s wily and rude, shrewd and quite hilarious. His volte face after the ghostly trio have seen to him, is believable. Supported by Naret Loots who mans the puppets and slips between a multitude of characters, the duo evoke an energy which is not, however, developed. Further to this, Loots has a tendency to smile very broadly on stage, particularly when she is the spirit of a puppet rather than a character itself. What happens is your eye is drawn to her smile and the puppet-generated illusion gets shattered.

As a result, what feels like a vanity project with a lot of exciting possibility trips up on its own sense of enthusiasm. Also a word of warning – something which many productions of Dickens fall into: this is not a children’s show – it’s more for children, admittedly, than Dickens’s Oliver Twist is, for instance – but the complexity of the language and nuance and curvaceousness of the tale will lose the focus of the sproglets rather quickly.

  • A Christmas Carol is written by Charles Dickens, adapted for stage and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features design by Naret Loots (animation), and Wessel Odendaal (music) and is performed by Christopher Dudgeon (voice-over), Naret Loots and Jason Ralph at The Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways until January 7, 2018. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • The three versions of this Dickensian classic include this production, A Seussified Christmas Carol directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, a British film directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.