A few years ago I had the privilege of watching a puppeteer interact with children, his puppet persona's biggest fans. He stood next to his puppet and controlled his "other self" so that it conversed with the kids - and they loved it. They weren't bothered by the fact that a man was standing right next to their beloved friend, speaking the same words their friend was speaking, using the same voice their friend was using. All they cared about was that their friend was there, in the flesh, and he was real. They had suspended their belief in what was real and what was make-believe.
In David Strassman's latest performance, iTedE, he takes the idea of "suspension of belief" and argues that, with the advances of technology and the way they harm a person's imagination, we are increasingly losing our ability to enjoy a culture where imagination drives the performance.
Strassman has been doing the ventriloquist's gig now since the 80s, and it's safe to say, he's one of the best at it. With this humour planted firmly in the cheeky category, he's best at playing the straight man to his band of unique characters, because he lets THEM say the things the real David wouldn't say. In iTedE, his puppet buddies (already recognised by loyal fans) Chuck Wood, Ted E. Bear, Kevin the Alien, Grandpa Fred and Sid Beaverman are parts of Strassman's alter ego, and their arguments and ramblings get in the way of Strassman's preparation for his upcoming TED talk.
The audience were up for anything, and willing to be taken wherever Strassman needed us to go. Want to believe a ventriloquist puppet can listen to an iPod whilst simultaneously hurling insults at others? We're cool with that. Want to assume a toy teddy bear loves eating chocolate and gets his feelings hurt easily? We're cool with that too. In fact, the vibe I got from the audience at the Enmore Theatre was that they were willing check their logic at the door and be entertained for the time being. Strassman even acknowledged that his audience wanted to laugh, and when a joke fell short of the usual loud laughter, he would turn to his puppet co-star and comment on it, as if they were re-assessing their routine as the evening progressed.
Strassman's performance was less to do with the art of ventriloquy and more to do with the subject matter and his crazy puppet characters. This is probably due to the fact that he's already a pretty familiar face in Australia (his primetime TV show Strassman once aired on Channel 9 years ago). We know what a good vetriloquist is, but throwing your voice without moving your lips is a skill lost on anyone in the back farther rows of a venue like the Enmore Theatre. No, what people cared about was what he was saying, and what his puppets were saying in return.
Chuck's abrasive behaviour was pushed on Ted E Bear's (my favourite character - they were selling toys of him in the venue lobby) naive sensibilities. "He's teasing me again!", Ted would say to David, and Chuck would yell an expletive at their direction. Even during his "time out" session, he'd mumble smart-alec comments, much to the audience's delight. Sid Beaverman and Grandpa Bear were like characters stuck in their own little worlds. Sid was the comedian who was "always on", looking to the audience in a "did ya geddit?" way after a punchline. Grandpa Fred is the older guy with an "I'm older now and I can say whatever the hell I want" attitude to life. Kevin the Alien is like the odd man (alien) out - he knows he's part of the show but he doesn't know why the others act the way they do.
Strassman's humour, whilst being tongue in cheek and crude (thanks in part to Chuck), isn't like the frat-boy humour found a lot in entertainment these days (the movie Ted with Mark Wahlberg, and films like Knocked Up and Superbad come to mind). Yet it still works, because the dynamic between the characters work, and each audience member gravitated towards their favourite character.
iTedE proves that suspension of belief is alive and well, and with a cast of characters as unique as Chuck, Ted and Kevin, we'll be suspending our belief - all in the name of laughs - for a long time.