By BRUCE DENNILL
Brain Dump / Starring John Vlismas / Studio, Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg 8
Many otherwise enthusiastic comedy fans regularly get frustrated when comedians who are obviously intelligent choose to dumb down their material to cater for the lowest common denominator in their audiences. It’s an understandable tactic in commercial terms, widening the potential reach for a set or show, but it has the obvious effect of both making the comic involved seem far less sophisticated than they might be and creating the impression that comedy is generally simple and superficial.
John Vlismas has generally steered clear of that tendency, but in his last couple of shows he has been thoroughly unapologetic about taking on big, complicated topics, researching them in depth and then communicating his findings in an amusing but uncompromising way. His previous show, The Good Racist, was a brave stab at schooling those who watched it in the history of South Africa (and other parts of the world) as it actually happened, rather than as it was interpreted by whoever was in charge at the time. In Brain Dump, he looks at our most complex organ – how it works, which parts of our established knowledge about it are myths, and how much of what we do with it we should be held accountable.
There is a tight, quickfire script accompanied by visuals on a television screen, but there is also plenty of room for Vlismas to react to the room and whatever level of energy or intelligence is fed back to him, and to riff on whatever current headline is relevant or mood is prevalent.
Taken as a whole, the piece is something like a manic, roller-coaster TED Talk, which will either result in those watching feeling smarter as they leave the theatre or raise the possibility that they may have already peaked in terms of their cerebral capacity.
Happily, it’s material that seems to enthuse its writer, with Vlismas maintaining a high level of dynamism and astuteness for the better part of two hours, in which it never feels like the show is dragging. There is some subject matter that will the test the tastes of more conservative onlookers, but Vlismas’ reputation is well enough established that his penchant for ignoring boundaries should no longer be surprising.
Many parts of the narrative of this show deal with the development or maintenance of neural pathways being down to sheer repetition of behaviours or actions. So perhaps, if you don’t get some of the shrewder punchlines in Brain Dump the first time around, book to go and see it again …