Strassman stage show reveals puppets cannot be trusted


This article first appeared on Farrago. To hear SYN’s interview with David Strassman, visit the Get Cereal blog.

The universal rule of acting is to never work with children or animals. Technically, David Strassman’s Careful What You Wish For stage show doesn’t break either of these rules; as lifelike as his puppets are, they are no more alive than the pedestals on which they sit.

Judging by the events that unfolded on Sunday night at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, his performance gives reason to introduce a new rule: never work with mechanical puppets.

Things didn’t start well for Strassman when his iconic child-puppet Chuck Wood was found to be missing a limb. The audience naturally assumed this was intentional. But when a black-dressed technical assistant entered stage right, it became evident that Chuck’s dismemberment wasn’t on the script.

Like the true professional of 32-years experience that he is though, Strassman ensured the show went on. While his assistant did his best to put Chuck back together, Strassman continued bantering with his doll. True to his nature, Chuck cracked gags about being inappropriately manhandled. Strassman, meanwhile, used the opportunity to fire a round of forbidden – albeit topical – gags about the Catholic Church.

The family of six in front of me didn’t appreciate the irreverent humour and promptly left. But they were no doubt the only ones repulsed; judging by the crowd’s reaction, Chuck’s on-stage repair work was the funniest skit of act one.

When the chaos over Chuck’s leg—or lack thereof—subsided, a narrative began to take shape. It became known that Chuck, fearful that Strassman’s imminent retirement might render him futile, had bribed the other puppets into blackmailing their long-time ventriloquist. One by one, different characters revealed more about Chuck’s cunning plan, leaving Strassman increasingly paranoid.

The existence of a storyline in itself can be considered a strong feature of Strassman’s comic performances, in that his show was more than just a stand-up routine. Indeed, when Strassman departed for the intermission, he left the audience not only wanting more humour but curious to know how the play might unfold.

In saying that, the storyline of Careful What You Wish For isn’t particularly strong—you won’t see any filmmakers adapting this work into a feature film anytime soon. It’s no secret that the purpose of most scenes was to introduce a new character, thus allowing Strassman to show off the diversity of his talents. Furthermore, the arrival of each respective puppet was often more impressive than the actual jokes being told. Low-brow humour concerning farts and female genitalia—and a horribly lame pun about Ted E. Bare losing his innocence—dominated the evening’s proceedings.

Meanwhile, the show’s laugh-out-loud moments heavily relied on slapstick humour—namely Theodore’s headbutt gag and Buttons the Clown’s drunken ramble—and mechanical failures. Much like the opening scene, Chuck underwent a head transplant midway through the first act. But in true self-depreciating style, Strassman included a staged technical glitch in the show’s finale, reassuring his audience once again that it would take more than a minor malfunction for his show to crumble.

Strassman might not have been able to deliver the most sophisticated punchlines, let alone the most reliable technology, but he made up for this with a multi-faceted and visually engaging performance. Unlike his puppets, he displayed a warm authenticity to his adoring crowd. Indeed, he was always the first one to admit any of his stuff-ups, displaying a willingness to laugh at his misfortune.

On this particular night, not every audience goer will have left the Athenaeum with new jokes to recite to their office colleagues the following morning. But almost all will have returned home with some sort of story to tell.

David Strassman’s Careful What You Wish For is showing at the Athenaeum Theatre until 2 December 2012.