Honestly, I almost feel unqualified to review David Strassman. The man has been performing with Chuck Wood – his first and most vulgar puppet – since before 1980, which is a full 12 years before I was born. Strassman has been king of his craft since before many other contemporary comedy ventriloquists were in nappies, and yet he still manages to impress. I’m not sure I’m qualified, but all I can do is press on.
Strassman’s new show iTedE is a two-act wonder that starts out a little slowly, but climaxes with his collection of remote controlled puppets taking over the stage and, ultimately, Strassman’s own mind. But let me start from the beginning.
The plot of the show is that Strassman is penning his own TED Talk, where TED Talks are “influential videos from expert speakers on education, business, science, tech and creativity” hosted both in reality and online (http://www.ted.com/). Strassman’s talk is intended to be about the impact of technology on suspension of disbelief and use of imagination, a remarkably pertinent comparison to Strassman’s life work. But, he needs a little help to write it, and in come his puppets.
Strassman’s most popular and well-known puppets are Chuck Wood, representative of Strassman’s vulgarity and rebellion, and Ted E. Bare, Strassman’s inner child. Surprise surprise, Chuck and Ted don’t get along particularly well, and their constant fighting is amusing, but becomes a little draining as a few of the jokes fall flat. However, controlling three characters at once – himself included – is just the beginning for the show.
Over the course of the first act Strassman introduces further characters: Sid Beaverman, his ‘class clown’ sense of humour, Kevin the Alien, his logical side, Grandpa Fred, his (adorable) father figure, and finally a brief cameo from Buttons the Clown, a terrifying nightmare of a puppet that turns out to be Strassman’s alcoholic tendencies personified. Each puppet – aside from Buttons – has their own personality-filled additions to Strassman’s TED Talk, and he takes them all into account in his own way.
Act two is shorter and encapsulates the TED Talk itself, which falls apart almost immediately (all part of the intended story!) as Strassman’s characters turn the conversation around on him and explain that he only took up ventriloquism to get away from a bad childhood. A quick cut to black and roaring applause followed, and then a little epilogue piece where each of Strassman’s five onstage characters performed a short song, which brilliantly showcased just how talented Strassman is.
Most ventriloquists only use one puppet at a time, maybe two if they’re particularly good. iTedE’s second act sees five characters onstage, all of whom are moving independently, controlled by Strassman’s truly magical handheld remote control. Throughout the show Strassman easily convinces his audience that his characters are real – despite vocal fumbles and multiple attempts at a difficult tongue-twister – and so it’s easy to forget that there’s only one man onstage changing his voice every second as his characters converse.
Strassman’s TED Talk, the one about technology vs. imagination, ends with a sickeningly sweet moral preaching that technology and imagination can be used to work together, and don’t need to cancel each other out. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes – Strassman remotely controlling five puppets and speaking for them almost simultaneously – I would have thought it ridiculous, but it was actually amazing. I can understand why so many people in the audience were carrying their own replica Ted E. Bare stuffed toys into the performance; Strassman makes all of his character so enchanting that they are one step away from being real, with or without the use of technology, but definitely with the use of imagination.