Speedmouse--The Worst of the Umbilical Brothers

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 12, 2006

At their best, the Umbilical Brothers can engage the funny bone and the imagination in awe-inspiring ways. Take the opening sketch in their new show Speedmouse, in which a man's brain control center decides to pack it up and exit the body in which it's housed. All that happens on stage is that David Collins holds a microphone to various parts of his person, while offstage Shane Dundas provides some sound effects. But what we "see" are the little brain cells scampering through David's body, pursued by some kind of strange invisible monkey, deliberately avoiding a detour in the groin area and heading down the leg and out the pants cuff. It's like a Terry Gilliam cartoon without the visual, which when you think about it is kind of amazing. And it's breathtakingly hilarious.

This level of brilliance happens at least one more time in Speedmouse, in a skit involving a three-year-old mime that I cannot say a word about lest I spoil it for you: it is at once a triumph of invention and perhaps the grandest postmodern joke ever. (The joke is on us, by the way.)

Other influences on these two Australian physical theatre artists are less intellectually stimulating: cartoons from the heyday of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, mostly, but also Laugh-In and Ernie Kovacs (in terms of a breakneck, pile-up-enough-shtick-so-quickly-that-they're-bound-to-laugh-at-something sensibility) and the second flowering of Saturday Night Live: one of their great signature bits, repeated here but first seen in their earlier Thwak!, combines Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey's muscle men Hans and Franz with Mike Myers's precious performance artist Dieter, in a delightfully deranged (and, again, postmodern) deconstruction of classic mime.

Speedmouse, which is subtitled "The Worst of the Umbilical Brothers," comprises a variety of sketches old and new, created and performed by this zany duo (who are not, of course, actually brothers). Tying it all together are two running gags, both of which unfortunately run out of steam. They tell us up front that their show is "digital," controllable by a remote that has fallen into treacherous, or at least mischievous, hands, which means that every so often the lights will unexpectedly change and Collins and/or Dundas will suddenly start dancing, or shift to fast or slow motion, or pause, etc. It's a neat idea and it illustrates the remarkable synchronicity of the two performers plus their backstage crew; but it's really overused here.

Ditto the notion that Collins is hated by the "Roadie" who assists them during the show, while Dundas is the target of similar passive aggression from "Tina," the board operator, who we never see but whose disembodied voice we hear throughout. This idea is tied together rather neatly at the show's end, but it's played out too often during the show proper.

But mostly Speedmouse is Collins and Dundas doing their astonishing stuff, which as I said can take the audience on unmatched flights of fancy.

I'm not sure that the New Victory Theatre is the best possible venue for this show, however. In one skit, Collins and Dundas give each other "the finger" repeatedly while miming different sporting events; it's quite clever, in its sophomoric way, but it felt pretty inappropriate for a crowd full of little kids. (I can just see them all gleefully imitating this at home and at school, ad nauseum.) Other sketches, for all their earnest silliness, assume a level of maturity either to appreciate their nuance or to understand them at all. The New Victory has suggested a minimum age of 10 for this show, but their subscribers and other patrons clearly ignored that recommendation at the performance I attended; even with that caveat, I'm not sure the Umbilical Brothers belong here—I think college (or beyond) is about the right time of life to really get what's happening here.

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