By BRUCE DENNILL
Conrad Koch: Puppet Guy / Directed by Chris Weare / The Studio at Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg 7.5
A comedian with a master’s degree in social anthropology, Conrad Koch also interested in puppets. Which is useful, as otherwise all the posters printed for this show wouldn’t make any sense. Throw in ventriloquism and what Koch does is already more complicated than your average stand-up comedian. And with Puppet Guy being developed as a platform for onward exposure internationally, there are other perspectives at play here beyond a grown man sticking his forearm into the rear portions of several figurines.
The script for this piece is incredibly dense, with more gags per square inch than the dungeon lair of a gang of particularly aggressive kidnappers. This results in two noticeable areas of commentary in the show.
First, absolutely effortless ventriloquism is an incredibly difficult art. Koch is very good, but the pace of his delivery and the complexity of his writing requires such quickfire repartee between him and his characters – particularly when there is more than one involved in a skit – that there is an occasional lip lapse. For most audience members, this won’t be an issue at all in terms of enjoying the action; it’s only worth mentioning in the context of the height of the bar at which Koch is aiming.
Two, from a straight stand-up point of view, Puppet Guy is uproariously funny. This is made clear by the strain felt in your cheeks as the lights come up at the end of the show – it’s muscle-achingly effective humour. That’s made more impressive by the breadth of the subject matter, delivered via among others Chester Missing (ironically both a crowd favourite and a slight barrier to innovation because of his popularity); Hilton (an ostrich made of closet castaways and cleaning products whose whackiness obscures some of his propensity for being brutally acerbic); and DJ Hoodie, whose existence explains the generally plainly-dressed Koch’s indulging in some absurdly bling accessorising.
Also inventive is Koch’s introduction of a segment in which he manipulates the face and actions of a volunteer using a link-up to his cellphone and some warped Snapchat filters. That’s not just for cheap laughs at the expense of a genial stranger. It’s an informal but successful way of explaining to relatively uninformed onlookers how ventriloquism works. Not so much the practical techniques involved, but the magic that makes you believe that a prop is a person, or at least has personality.
Similarly, a segment involving more volunteers wearing masks that Koch can manipulate while literally putting words in their mouths works brilliantly because, in this case, it is real people who are the puppets, and they are as helpless as their metal, plastic and fabric co-stars to determine their own fate. In the show being reviewed, there was a wonderful, telling moment when a strapping young man who’d played along sportingly the whole evening was strapped into a warthog mask and then compelled to “say” the phrase “I love to dance” (or words to that effect). A slight but noticeable slump in his shoulders showed that this was perhaps an outcome he had feared more than any other, something that Koch may or not have picked up on duing his brief interaction with the man onstage (of necessity, many of these interactions must be improvised, so that sort of sensitivity is yet another layer to the show that should be appreciated).
There is still a fair amount of the satirical South African political analysis that has formed much of Koch’s portfolio to day – largely via Chester Missing. But it is clear that for the international audiences who will see the show soon, that material can simply be dropped or adapted for those contexts according to the headlines of the day.
This is a comedy show with more (and more consistent) laughs than at least three-quarters of the more conventionally delivered – that is to say, no puppets – competition. With the slight technical imperfections ironed out, which they no doubt will be, Koch’s quest for wider awareness of his capabilities has every chance of succeeding, and soon.