Saturday, March 8, 2014

Raising My Voice About Throwing One's Voice

First things first.

Seems like the unruly mob from “The Speakeasy” last night was the Google Wallet team. And, not only did they do some things that are better left unmentioned (I make no accusations, just passing on the intimations of rumors), but they were indeed given the ol’ heave-ho. While my low opinion of the Big G remains in the gutter, I wish the Wallet team all the best in their future endeavors and theatre-going. I just hope they don’t return to our “undisclosed location.”

Moving on.

Let’s talk about ventriloquists.

“Why?” I hear you ask.

“Because I have no other ideas for topics,” I reply. So let me see how many words I can get out of this.

As I’ve mentioned, “The Speakeasy” now features a ventriloquist among its many variety artistes. His appearance is generally an awkward one. Not for his act, which has been discussed before, but for his early appearance. When he “shows up” at the bar (his character has just taken the train from Cleveland), the bar is generally empty. I defy any performer to get laughs or any kind of strong reaction to a virtually empty house – especially an empty barroom.

But, that aside, what is the point of ventriloquism? It’s an interesting party trick, but the idea of making a career of it is baffling to me. As I write this, I’ve just seen a 1937 short starring Edgar Bergen, with Charlie McCarthy listed as a featured player. This must be the only time Charlie got that kind of billing – especially in the late 30s, when they were just beginning their reign as the hosts of the top program on radio (I’m reminded of Josh Mostel’s outrage in Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” about a ventriloquist on the radio). Bergen and McCarthy are diverting enough, but Bergen himself is a bit of a stiff, of necessity giving his dummy the best lines. (This is nothing, though, compared to a Jack Benny show from the 50s, where Bergen guested with actors in costumes playing a full-sized Charlie and his cohort Mortimer Snerd. Seeing them run around was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen.)

I’ve decided that my character is creeped out by ventriloquists and finds them most distasteful, so he ignores the act the best he can.

There’s a sameness to ventriloquist acts that tires me. The human is the straight man, feeding the dummy the punch lines, most of which are tired puns or dull observations on current events. The dummy is allowed to pose as the truth-teller, even if those truths are tired commonplaces. (Sudden thought: how about a production of “King Lear” where Lear’s fool is a dummy being fed his lines by the king? Might give an interesting twist to that relationship and an insight into Lear’s sanity.)

A while back, David Letterman, in an uninspired flight of fancy, featured a week of ventriloquist acts. (He also had weeks of impersonators and “Elvis tribute artists,” both of which were equally unentertaining.) Watching these guys virtually back to back, the conceit quickly lost its novelty. They all featured different puppets and dummies (ranging from cranky old men – no comments, please – to dragons to your “standard” model dummies), but the material was all on the same level (meh) and none of them did anything memorable. This was actually surprising. These guys were at the top of their field, yet none of them was apparently willing to spring for really good writers. All of the material was sub-standard.

Now, lest you think I have contempt for all ventriloquists, let me hasten to add there is at least one I find wildly entertaining: the late Senor Wences. For me, the difference between Wences and the others is that not only is he a fine actor, but his timing is stunning. Witness this clip, wherein he plays five characters, each differentiated, from the compliant Johnny to the grumpy Pedro. (I once heard that Pedro had originally been a full-sized dummy, but when Wences played a club owned by Al Capone – and, yes, his career was that long; he died at the age of 103 – Scarface Al was so freaked out by the site of him that he had Pedro decapitated. Wences took the hint and put the head in a box).

Further, in this excerpt, not only does he alternate between his own voice and those of Johnny and Pedro, he does it while he’s juggling – any of which is difficult to do on its own, let alone simultaneously.

I don’t deny that ventriloquism is a talent and a skill, but, for me, what separates talent from genius is that indefinable something that Wences shows. Most ventriloquists wear out their welcomes in a matter of minutes. Wences is the kind of entertainer I can watch again and again and again and of whom I never tire.

That’s art.

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