By BRUCE DENNILL
Claudine Ullman: Artificial Infemination / Dunkelder Teater, Dunkeld, Johannesburg
There is little point in having any expectations when watching a performance of Claudine Ullman’s first one-woman show. It’s not stand-up comedy in the generally accepted sense, as audience interaction is part of the piece throughout. And though Ullman is a respected fixture on the improv comedy circuit, the presence of props prepared for every audience member confirms that, while she can adapt to any unexpected angle that might arise, Ullman has not come into this show without a great deal of preparation.
Collaboration with the crowd begins from the outset via a spiel about Ullman needing to be recognised for her brilliance via the endowment of an appropriate award, should there be a critic in the house… Whether there is or isn’t on a particular night, someone is chosen to occupy a chair in the front row, where they are provided with a cushion, a notebook and pen and a glass of wine. That’s one of the easier roles to play during the evening. If you are a critic, you will not need to be a participant in a ribald sexual education class, read the announcements for a misogynistic headboy, get covered in cocaine or – worst of all – dance in front of strangers.
Those are just a handful of the scenarios created by Ullman as she, with irrepressible enthusiasm and unswayable confidence, connects segments of more traditional stand-up delivery with skits featuring therapists and high school jocks and bits that are determined to some degree by how each performance’s audience reacts.
That last facet is one of the many risks that Ullman factors in during the piece. Her show is designed to involve everyone in the room, and if you’ve arrived expecting to be spoken at, you may initially feel uncomfortable. That the likelihood of things staying that way is minimal is a mark of Ullman’s skill as a performer and director, as well as a product of years of improv, where situations must be adjusted to on the fly, and whatever resources are on hand must be accepted and effectively utilised on the spot. Some audience members are up for anything immediately, while others take a bit of coaxing, but before too long, everyone is on board, and the actions the rookies are expected to carry out are often at least as funny as Ullman’s professional japery.
There is smart observational writing and edginess that feels comfortable because of Ullman’s self-deprecating charm. But the standout aspect of her style – again, a likely offshoot of her experience and talent as an improviser – is Ullman’s willingness to invest in an action or comic choice, however ridiculous, 100%. The last of her characters, a repressed housewife looking to let her hair down, is perhaps the best example of this, with the stage at the end of the show looking like the cast of Apocalypse Now had a party there.
There are no gimmicks here, just full-blooded, whole-hearted hilarity.