Review by Thomas Gregory
Wordless performance is a rare experience in comedy, with only a few strong examples in modern history. Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr Bean” is often the first character to come to mind. There is also the magician, Teller, the mime, Marcel Marceau, and the Australian darlings, the Umbilical brothers.
While Phil Burgers’ Dr Brown may be lesser known to lay audiences, he has quite a large following. Eleven years ago, he won the director’s choice at MICF, followed by a BARRY the year later. It is no surprise to know that few tickets remain for his current show, Dr Brown Beturns.
As someone new to the experience of Phil Burgers, though, I was surprised to find the show far less consistent in its comedy than I expected. For some audiences, this will be their favourite show of the festival. For newcomers, however, it is a risk that will either pay off massively or feel like a complete waste of time.
I cannot dispute that Burgers is the master of specific comic skills, especially with how he handles improv and audience interaction. This latter skill is reminiscent of stage hypnotists, convincing people to do sometimes-quite-embarrassing acts in front of the rest of the audience simply because they don’t want to let the man with the pleading face down. Burgers’ puppy-dog face is a powerful tool, but he also has a well-honed ability to know where he can draw the line with each audience member he drags into the show. The big laughs of the night came from what he was able to convince people to do.
However, there are some critical aspects of a good show that are (at least to me) missing. The most important of which is character.
Everyone knows who Mr Bean is. Innocent but selfish and sometimes quite malicious, he is part 3-year-old child and part alien trying to assimilate into modern society. He loves his teddy bear, will always attempt to take the shortcut, and really struggles to understand how to be loved.
After an hour with Dr Brown, however, I have no idea who he is. Is he a carelessly inappropriate old man like Father Jack Hackett (Father Ted)? Is he a lazy golden retriever who wants someone else to fetch the ball? In the only “narrative” of the night, there is a story about a father watching his baby grow old and break his heart; a story that could nearly make you cry if it wasn’t surrounded by the rest of it. Ultimately, I’m left not caring about the person I just watched and knowing I have little interest in revisiting them.
There is also this distinct lack of formal attention to detail. Whether Teller, Atkinson, or Marceua, the silent performer knows that each and every movement of their body is a “word” used to tell a story. Each step is an intentional one, and each smile has a special meaning. Burgers is far more lackadaisical about the tools in his comedy chest. While you could never plan for anything in improv, the greatest artists in this sub-category of theatre are rarely “winging it”. There are go-to responses to unexpected choices from his audience and near-guaranteed laughs Burgers knows he can get. Many times during the night, however, I felt that he had simply forgotten about a running joke or that he still needed to provide a punchline to a joke he had been distracted from.
Audience-involved production can also be risky at several levels. While Burgers has learned to pick those most willing to participate, I could not help but wonder where peer pressure might coerce people to perform acts they feel uncomfortable doing. In an age where we try to teach our children enthusiastic consent, ridiculing the audience member who feels uncomfortable putting their face near your bare bottom is terribly close to sexual harassment. To be fair to the comedian, most of the time, he quickly accepted a firm “no”, but what of the audience member who cannot bring themselves to be so assertive? Avoid the front rows if you are the quiet type, and if you are the confident type, please be the saviour of others.
Dr Brown Beturns is going to be your most enjoyable night or most uncomfortable one. I cannot help but recommend taking the risk to see this truly unique performance but don’t be surprised if you end up disappointed that I have done so.