By Donna Herman
Nina Conti: In Your Face, currently at The Barrow Street Theater, is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s also like nothing Nina Conti has ever seen – or done – before. Every night is different because it’s all improvised. And then there’s the monkey. The very cheeky monkey named, well…Monkey.
Nina Conti is an actress, comedian and world-class ventriloquist. Ventriloquism is not a major art form these days. So, it’s unusual to see a young, stylish and attractive woman practicing the format. She’s well known to British audiences, however. In 2002 she won the BBC New Comedy Award and has been headlining in London and UK comedy clubs ever since, selling out Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows, and regularly appearing on UK TV.
American audiences may remember Nina and Monkey from her role on the Christopher Guest HBO series Family Tree, starring Christopher O’Dowd. She played O’Dowd’s sister, Bea Chadwick, a neurotic woman who has been paired with a monkey hand puppet since a traumatic childhood incident with a puffin. She can communicate the emotions and feelings she has through the monkey that she cannot voice otherwise. The series was recorded in 2013 and I imagine that Mr. Guest tailor-made the part for her.
Nina Conti’s ventriloquism/comedy shows revolve around Monkey and improvisation and it’s clear that, like Bea, Nina uses Monkey to say what’s on her mind. Unlike ventriloquists of yore who did ba-DUM-bum jokes, Nina’s an uncensored riffer. With the help of Monkey, she gets to be naughty and nice at the same time. Monkey can use foul language, or be sarcastic, nasty and say whatever comes to mind while NIna can respond with blushes, shock and apologies. It’s a dichotomy that works stunningly well and keeps both the audience and the performer in stitches. Laughter is infectious.
I’ve seen other shows with “improvised” bits before, like the uproarious Dame Edna. But Nina Conti is something else entirely. She has clearly rehearsed the opening, and it’s a neat representation of how she uses comedy to both skewer and reveal herself, as well as set up the character of Monkey:
NINA: I wanted to start by saying that most ventriloquists…
MONKEY: Are dead.
MONKEY: Or at least lonely…
NINA: No! Um…(laughing) Most ventriloquists….
MONKEY: Are too poor to feed their kids?
NINA: No… (laughing), not that either. Most ventriloquists…
MONKEY: Die on cruise ships.
NINA: What?! Shut up! Am I ever going to get to the end of this sentence?
MONKEY: Well, if you don’t know we’re fucked!
After that however, everything goes off the rails and there’s no more script to follow. She and Monkey start talking to the people in the front row, finding out who they are, what they do for a living and drawing them out. The combination of the charming Nina “Oh, you’re from England but you live here now, how smart you are!” and the cheeky Monkey (to the woman next to the Englishman) “Are you his bitch?” works wonderfully well.
Then Monkey claims his 15 minutes of fame alone and insists Nina get into a bag while he takes questions from the audience. “What do you think of Brexit, Monkey?” “I think people thought they could eat it.” Quite smartly, Monkey turns the question about what he thinks about Trump back on the audience before committing his own views.
The highpoint of the show comes when Nina starts calling audience members onto the stage as sort of live puppets with half-face masks. Nina Conti: In Your Face becomes quite literal. She proceeds to use her ventriloquist’s art to speak for them, and to them, while they gesture appropriately. She has a wide range of accents she employs from old Russian woman, to young Scotchman, to someone who sounded suspiciously like Gilbert Gottfried. She chooses people she has spoken to in the opening segment from the front row or who have asked Monkey questions, so plan accordingly!
The first gentleman, an IT Freelancer named Jason from the front row, did brilliantly. She asked him to describe his work, which she clearly knew nothing about, and he couldn’t speak. So, while he was miming taking off the back cover of a computer, she was describing mixing up a batch of paints and drowning a hamster in it.
Trust me, you had to be there, and you should go – it was hysterical. In the end, she had four audience members on stage doing a bad line dance and speaking for them all. Masterful and side-splitting. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit that two of the final four audience participants turned out to be reviewers. I was the old Russian woman and she had had me threatening to shoot Trump – hey out of the mouths of puppets.
I am totally going back. The next time though, I’m just going to watch the show, not be in it.
NINA CONTI: IN YOUR FACE
WITH: Nina Conti (Monkey)
Produced by Staci Levine, stage manager, Michael Mendelson, sound mixer & light board op, Kevin Semancik; technical supervisor, Joshua Kohler; general manager, Tim Hurley/Groundswell Theatricals; press rep, Keith Sherman Associates. Limited Run at the Barrow Street Theater December 14th through December 23rd . For tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/962887