Not only is Nina Conti a brilliantly skilled ventriloquist and voice thrower, but she is able to improv and riff in different languages and dialects, creating vivid and varied characters throughout her show, aptly titled In Your Face.
At first it was fun to try to catch her moving her mouth or to notice when she hid behind a nose rub or hair toss to properly enunciate something, but within minutes one stopped caring and was pulled into her quick wit and biting commentary. Her trained larynx moved up and down as her lips remained in a slightly parted smile. She deftly switched between her naughty puppet (the Foul Mouthed Monkey) and her sweet self in flawless, rapid succession.
She came on strong, riffing jokes about how most ventriloquists are unable to feed their children or are just working the cruise ship circuit, and how her monkey should have a microphone on (like hers) to maintain the illusion that he can speak without her. The monkey is able to say exactly what is in her mind- be it lewd or cutting, while she nods and smiles saying the expectedly polite response. At one point she strummed a guitar with his plastic face to a song called “My Face Hurts When I Play Guitar”, leaving the audiences in stitches.
After an established opening set, Nina’s brilliant improvisation skills were able to shine as she addressed the entire front row of the audience individually asking, “Who are you and what do you do?” Her skill for remembering the details given to her allowed her to later call upon these people and embellish her jokes. Her persona is that of the ideal, polite, British lady, while her swearing monkey is her inner voice with impeccable timing that says what everyone wishes to say but doesn’t dare. Nina trusts her instincts and impulses and runs with them, embellishing story lines along the way.
Nina Conti has brilliantly imagined scenarios for herself and her monkey who is controlled by her. The framework of the show establishes that her monkey wants to take over and speak on his own. He devises several plans to accomplish this- at one point deciding to hypnotize her. After he is successful in putting her out, he too becomes frozen (which foils his plan). Kudos to Nina for holding absolutely still until the raucous audience laughter and ensuing rippling waves of glee merged into helplessness. Finally in the lingering silence an audience member whistled, which woke up the monkey, allowing him to head-butt Nina out of her trance and admit his plan was not well thought out.
With a basic black box set up, and simple items at her disposal such as a chair, a stool, and a large sketch pad (that she didn’t end up using for this performance), the rack that was adorned with handmade masks is what taunted the eye with curiosity.
She pulled several members of the audience (that I first assumed were plants- that is until I myself became a part of the show), on stage. All of the participants had a mask placed over the lower half of their faces. She then ran between the five of us, voice throwing and gifting a different character to each masked person. It was an improv game of the best kind- any reaction or movement we gave her were the pearls she strung her show on. Running between us while weaving fantasy and embellishing storylines, she gave the biggest gift any ventriloquist could give his dummy- the hand control that controls the mask’s mouth’s movement for us to activate, as she threw her voice and justified the action.
This mostly improvised show is true mastery and different every night. Boldly showing how the (wo)man behind the curtain is controlling the wizard (or in this case the monkey), the finale had her stripping off the puppet and showing how her hand controls his facial movements. Finally granting the Foul Mouthed Monkey’s wish, Nina becomes the monkey himself for all to believe.
Nina is lovely and gracious enough to share the stage- creating a personal atmosphere that leaves the audience feeling like they are old friends. In the lobby after the show many conversations were sparked as people shared their favorite moments and left feeling high on humor.
Nina Conti: In Your Face: Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. through Dec. 23rd. A fun night out not suited for minors.