by Carole Di Tosti
Superior ventriloquists with effortless, sublime ease shift the attention from themselves to their inanimate puppets who become the incarnations of their deeper selves. In pieces of plastic, in bits of fur, in masks of papier–mâché, ventriloquists live and have their being, all the while manipulating the audience to believe in the process of transference. During Nina Conti’s magical production In Your Face, currently at Barrow Street Theatre, one becomes entranced by the measure of her phenomenal ventriloquism which is non pareil, not only in its demonstrable skill but in the creative genius of her dialogues with her alter ego, the adorable, unpredictable and irrepressible Monkey known as “Monk.”
But this is only the beginning of her prodigious talent. For Conti’s show is interactive. In her fervor and exuberance, she relies on her improvisational gifts to stir up and elicit audience participation. Audience members effect their own stage appearances, don masks Conti supplies them with, then lets fly and they have a go at “it” becoming personas she creates. Conti supplies their voices and moves the mouths of their masks. Soliciting material/personal subjects the various participants give her, she spins out scenarios that differ each evening.
The evening that I saw In Your Face, Conti brought up two individuals who donned masks she provided voices and humor for, and then they returned with applause to their seats. In another routine Monk was the “lone” performer on stage (Conti slipped inside a huge, black, canvass bag). He “stole the show” and ended his stint taking audience questions. When Conti slipped out of the bag, there was a segue. From Monk’s conversations with the audience, Conti solicited four individuals. She fitted them with ventriloquism masks and provided them with singular voices, all accented (French, Scottish, etc.), and “the chosen” spun the rest.
What was absolutely amazing was that the participants’ characters cohered with Conti’s voices in spite of themselves. Behind the masks they dropped all semblance of shyness. They enacted bodily movements, gestures, head movements in keeping with the dialogue and voices of their personalities. Their physical responses to Conti’s questions (she threw their voices) were exhilarating.
Shocked by Conti’s deft extemporaneous navigation with participants’ personal details, the audience watched gobsmacked in hysterics as once reticent individuals became unchained and rose to comedic heights. With their movements they flowed within Conti’s characters.’ Their rhythms, quips, one liners became their own. She incarnated funny, unique people and they interacted with aplomb. The participant-actors, portrayed the personalities with gusto, pleased to “bring down the house” with her. Conti, for her part, was just having conversations, hiding her smooth voice throwing behind a smile and a flourish of white, grinning teeth and smooth show-woman-ship, while she deftly manipulated the mask mouths and laughed.
I wondered. How is Conti able to vibe her voice throwing with these people, come up with the outrageous dialogue and get them relaxed so that they can employ their own gestures and movements? Were these individuals selected beforehand? Or is it just her secret recipe whose ingredients are practiced, onstage facility, lightening – fast timing, perfect delivery and searing mental agility? The audience marveled as I did.
It’s Conti’s magic. How does she do it? Well! The fact that she creates scenarios with participants who become actors and comedians, dance and sing fearlessly, emboldened by Conti’s sheer joy and enthusiasm is the way it is. I got it. So I stopped questioning and guffawed my heart out taking pleasure from every moment of the joy ride.
Nina Conti in her New York premiere, hot from an engagement at The Criterion Theatre in London’s West End is flashy, edgy, explosive, daring, ahead of the ventriloquism curve, mind blowing, singular, jarring, hysterical, shimmering, ironic, iconic and a spinning whirligig of fun. You will miss an exceptional evening (or two or three for each night is unique) if you let this production slip by without seeing it.
In your Face is in a limited thirteen performance run at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street NY, NY). The production opens 14 December and is 1 hour with no intermission. However, the night I saw it, the production ran longer because we all were having a laugh riot. No one wanted the show to end.
You can pick up tickets at the Box Office open daily, seven days a week at 1:00 pm. (Box Office 866-811-4111) You can purchase tickets online at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34800