“The Ventriloquists Convention” at MCA Review –Humanity, in a Timely Contrast to Terror


Our eyes were glued to the Internet TV’s real-time unfolding of terror in Paris on the evening of November 13, 2015.    Running to make a curtain at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art seemed superfluous, or minimally a challenging demand to switch channels in our mindset.


As we entered the theater so did a lone puppeteer who assumed what seemed to be a front row center stage seat at “The Ventriloquists Convention”. 


A note from Paris-based choreographer and director Gisèle Vienne, a co-creator of “Ventriloquists Convention” freely floated from the program book into our hands that was signed “In peace—“ and that read, “We welcome you here tonight—even as we carry deep concern for and empathy with the people of Paris. 


“As you may know, a series of terrible attacks occurred there this evening; and the horror of the situation is still unfolding. 


“In contrast to these barbaric acts of terror, we stand in support of free people, creative expression, and our shared humanity.”


A drone sound filled the auditorium as the crowd filtered in.  Meanwhile chatting gaggles of actors drifted into the stage.  Then the lone puppeteer in center stage goes back and forth with his misbehaving puppet.  The puppet plays with himself sexually.  The puppeteer hits him. The audience laughs.  The terror on the streets of Paris is forgotten ---for a time.



“The Ventriloquists Convention” is a contemporary puppet/ventriloquy/theater work that takes inspiration from the annual convention at Kentucky’s Vent Haven Museum, the world’s only museum of ventriloquists’ dummies.  Like other collaborations between French-Austrian Gisèle Vienne and American Dennis Cooper, this is an exploration of humanity on the fringes.  It is performed and co-created by Jonathan Capdevielle, Kerstin Daley- Baradel, Uta Gebert, Vincent Goher, and East German Pupppentheater Halle members Nils Dreschke, Sebastian Fortak, Lars Frank, Ines Heinrich-Frank, and Katharina Kummer.



We meet a transvestite ventriloquist, his/her son, a toned down Lisbeth Salander type ventriloquist artist who pictures her puppets as sculptures, a punk rock enthusiast with a hyper-realist Kurt Cobain puppet and his “American Dream” girlfriend who thinks her spray can is a puppet, a stereotyped top ventriloquist performer whom most of the others despise, a daughter of a ventriloquist icon and her re-creation of her father’s puppet, a woman with an injured ghoul puppet who spends her time entertaining terminally ill children in hospitals, and the older puppeteer with the misbehaving puppet whom we met originally and whom we later learn typically has to rouse his puppet from his coffin. 



Throughout, a silent lone Charlie McCarthy dummy sits on a chair like a…dummy.


It’s a fringe crowd with many relishing using the F-word as if liberally salting their food, which at times makes us feel like we wandered into a teen’s basement bedroom.  That said, the script delivers powerful wallops, especially in the end, and much entertainment on the way to getting there. 



What the ventriloquists have in common is their art of throwing their voice from gosh knows where to their puppet and sometimes just the ether.  You remember that first time your then child brain saw a ventriloquist and wondered how on earth they did it—especially during the many moments when nobody seems to be talking on the stage and yet we hear a voice projected. 



What the puppets have in common is an ability to become so human that they double the cast size on the stage.  And, though there are different variants of the story, they each seem to have been born as alter egos in response to their human’s difficulties navigating the world.  


“The Ventriloquists Convention” has a timely French connection that you will likely think of as you watch in this post-Paris attack times, e.g. supported by the French-American Fund for Contemporary Theater (FACE).


Through the lens of the terror events of the day, “The Ventriloquists Convention”’s overflow humanity seems to add to the puzzle of what motivates terrorist hearts.  We often hear that terrorists are inspired to their actions by perceived wrongs and discriminations.  Here, the wronged and dissed puppeteer characters turned not to bombs and beheadings, but to art.   Most memorably, the transvestite puppeteer recounts how he coped with being a young gay outcast with an alcoholic father by bonding in secret with his puppet.  Unlike on  ISIS terrain, we meet more of our humanity, not less, when we go to the puppeteers’ fringe.



There is one more performance on November 14.  For more information visit the newly revised MCA website .


 Photos courtesy of Gisele Vienne



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