Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!
Also see Sharon's review of City of Angels
In Jay Johnson: The Two and Only! ventriloquist Johnson gives the audience a brief history of ventriloquism. (Don't groan at the thought of a lesson - there are visual aids.) Johnson talks about how, in the early days, ventriloquists were considered to have mystical powers, in that they could communicate with the dead - or worse, they were thought to be possessed by evil spirits themselves. By comparison, those who consider ventriloquists to be practitioners of a craft seem downright enlightened. But Johnson wants more. The performer, who generally presents an affable persona, gets the slightest bit defensive - he's not a mere artisan but a true artist.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Jay Johnson: The Two and Only is about. Sure, it's got something interesting in there about the history of ventriloquism. And it also covers Johnson's own experience growing up and developing his natural talent for making his voice sound like it's coming from someplace else. But mostly, it stands as an argument for ventriloquism as performance art, rather than parlour trick. And the most convincing argument for the position is Johnson's performance itself. Because, whether he's working with a goofy little snake puppet, a comic vulture puppet (Nethernore, "the bird of death!"), his original puppet partner Squeaky, or his well-known sidekick Bob (from the TV show Soap), Johnson creates a completely believable character out of whoever happens to be at the other end of his arm. It isn't that you can't see Johnson's lips moving that makes him so good, it's that his interaction with the puppets is so convincing that you can't help but not even look at what Johnson's mouth is doing when the puppet is talking.
Of course, part of the character-creation effect comes from the way Johnson talks about his "Wooden American" friends. He won't call them "dummies" or treat them as mere props; he talks about them - particular Bob and Squeaky, the human-looking ones - like people with whom he works. Don't get me wrong; this show isn't about a guy who doesn't know the difference between reality and fantasy. At the end of the day, they're still puppets. But listening to the effort that Johnson put into finding someone to "carve [his] partner" and the way in which he lovingly describes all of the detail that went into Squeaky's creation, it is apparent that this puppet is much more to him than just a tool with which he does his job.
A good chunk of the show is comprised of Johnson doing bits with various puppets. Some of the bits, like a piece with an energetic monkey (named Darwin), are there purely to entertain, and they most certainly do. Others educate as well as entertain, as when Johnson and Bob teach us a little bit about certain consonants that are dangers for ventriloquists. But the most memorable bits are those where Johnson and his partners (somewhat fancifully) illustrate something out of his own history, such as what happened when his parents sent young Jay outside to play with a ball, and he had a conversation with it instead. (The ball preferred not to get thrown around.) Or when Johnson had to "break it to Squeaky" that the producers of Soap wanted Johnson for the show, but wanted him to work with a different puppet.
Johnson's short piece with Squeaky is the best bit of the show. After we've heard about how important Squeaky was to Johnson, the only time Johnson takes him out of the box is to "reenact" the scene when Johnson had to break up their partnership. Driving home after the show, I started to get annoyed by this. Sure, Squeaky got the best line in the show (as well he should, I thought), but he didn't have nearly enough stage time. Squeaky was Johnson's partner; Squeaky's physical manifestation was made to embody a character Johnson had already created; and Squeaky had been made for Johnson by the man who became Johnson's mentor in ventriloquism. Bob, on the other hand, was just some puppet Johnson made some money with on television. It wasn't fair, I thought, that Bob got more stage time than Squeaky, and I thought that what I really wanted to see at the end of this show was for Johnson to get back together with the original partner with whom he belonged ... and then I realized, that's why what Johnson does is art.
Jay Johnson: The Two & Only! runs at the Brentwood Theatre thru February 19. For tickets, see Ticketmaster.
RICHMARK Entertainment presents a Roger Alan Gindi, Stewart F. Lane & Bonnie Comley, Dan Whitten, Herbert Goldsmith Productions, WetRock Entertainment production of Jay Johnson: The Two & Only! Written and Performed by Jay Johnson. Conceived by Jay Johnson, Murphy Cross, Paul Kreppel. Scenery by Beowulf Boritt; Lighting by Clifton Taylor; Sound by David Gotwald; Original Music by Michael Andreas; Production Management Showman Fabricators; Production Supervisor Lori Ann Zepp. Directed by Murphy Cross & Paul Kreppel. Marketing/Advertising TMG - The Marketing Group; Press Representation Davidson & Choy Publicity.