Nina Conti is In Your Face again in another rendition of her brilliant part-scripted mostly-improv ventriloquism show.
I’ll be honest here, I’m very biased. I have loved Nina’s work for years, and I’ve watched her growth from a single-puppet performer to a multi-puppet performer to a multi-human-puppet performer, and I can only see a bright future for her. Still, when she stepped onto the Fairfax Studio stage at the Arts Centre for her 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, her bubbly personality and cute 60s dress could have made me believe I was seeing her for the first time.
Her one and only inanimate puppet – though he could make you believe he was real – nowadays, Monkey, is brilliantly sarcastic, allowing Conti to voice her rudest inner thoughts without offending anyone. Monkey calls random audience members sluts, he constantly breaks the fourth wall in his conversations with Conti, and he even plays the guitar. And through all of it, it’s so easy to watch his little mouth move and imagine he’s real, compared to checking Conti’s lips for the telltale signs that she’s his voice.
Monkey serves as the search engine for the poor audience members Conti gives new faces (and new voices) to throughout the show. Via his conversation with random people in the front row, and people all throughout the theatre when he forces Conti into a bag so he can be the only performer onstage, Conti finds the funniest victims she can for her main performance – human face masks that she can control.
While I do appreciate Monkey’s little scripted moments, Conti really shines as an improvisation master. Everything she does with her human puppets is created on the spot, and while she obviously has voices (Russian, American, her native English, and probably a million more) on standby, each character is informed by the audience member’s own career and, most importantly, by their willingness to play along with her.
I imagine that controlling one or maybe two human puppets onstage is difficult, as Conti has to break any awkward silences by shy audience members who can’t figure out what to do with their bodies while Conti uses their mouths for her own brand of humour. But, I can’t at all imagine how tough controlling four people at once is. Conti can only control two mouths – as she’s only got two hands, and the masks are hand-controlled – so it’s a delight to see her running around the stage, switching instantly from character to character as some of her puppets argue and some of her puppets wait awkwardly to the side for their turn to be tortured.
Conti’s final act – after she leads her four puppets in a dance routine she coaxed them to create – is to turn herself into a puppet. She switches her dress for a ridiculous nude suit, fake breasts and all, and wears it backwards while she encourages the audience to control her as she’s controlled everything else onstage.
Honestly, my only complaint is that she ran under by maybe five minutes. I’m not sure I could ever get enough of her performances. (And, the best thing is, since it’s all improv, it’s different every night!)