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REVIEW: Strassman: Careful What You Wish For | Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne

Puppets say the darndest things in the hands of veteran ventriloquist David Strassman. His new show in Melbourne stars familiar characters and clever new technology.

When news began to circulate that veteran ventriloquist David Strassman was taking to the stage in a new show incorporating wireless technology — affording him the freedom of not having to ram an arm up the nether regions of his creations — traditionalists in puppeteering circles presumably cried “sacrilege”.

They needn’t have worried. Despite the glossy set, digital backdrops and aforementioned technological addition, Strassman’s techniques in Careful What You Wish For still feel, like the profession itself, decidedly retrograde (and the wireless component is deployed in modest measures).

Most Australian audiences have been exposed to Strasso’s shtick on platforms such as Hey, Hey It’s Saturday, so many may have forgotten — or never experienced — the fresh-faced 55-year-old’s penchant for irreverent “went there” humour.

Despite every third or forth audience member proudly wielding their own Ted E. Bare puppets purchased at the merch counter prior to curtain raising, the show is a strictly adults-only affair. There’s plenty of sex and body jokes, plenty of swearing and a smattering of topic/local references: Julia Gillard has moved forward precisely nowhere, you can get Hep B with your two-piece feed at KFC down the street, etcetera.

Strassman gets away with riffing on risqué water-cooler topics like paedos and priests through characterisation; it’s not him but his uncontrollable “colleagues” who froth filth from the mouth, prompting the puppeteer to respond, mouth agog, with faux shock and an expression of “puppets say the darndest things”. Chuck-E is a dirty prankster, Ted is a sweet bear who is accidentally rude and Beaver makes jokes about, well, take a guess. Beaver does however implore viewers not to be sexist — “bitches,” he says, “don’t like it”.

If the first half of Careful What You Wish For feels a little drawn out, the running time a pinch too long, the second sees it up the ante spectacularly as Strassman and his characters are thrust into a bizarro parallel world where everybody bar the human star of the show are sort of the same and sort of different. Grandpa Fred, for example, is now a woman, thus the fart and erection jokes adjust accordingly into puns about vaginas and come-ons.

The show ends with Strassman throwing his voice between six puppets, two of which are upstairs on the balconies. It’s both a great moment of tour-de-force vocal work and an admission of sorts that some creatures are independently programmed; he can’t possibly be operating all of them. But it’s always clear which bits on the program are humanly operated and which use technological assistance, so Strassman’s smile-stretching shenanigans never feel fraudulent.

The impact of the show is deflated by an epilogue in which Strassman concludes by showing the audience his iPad app and stops just shy of adding “buy it on the way home”. This is a shamelessly commercial exercise — he’s already announced Australian tour dates for 2014 — and a fairly funny one at that.

The details: Strassman: Careful What You Wish For plays the Athenaeum Theatre until December 2. Tickets via Ticketek.

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