“We never like to use the word mime but it’s an empty stage. It is filled with stuff and you can’t see it.”
Physical comedy has been somewhat of a lost art in the new millennium, and it’s easy to write off pantomime and physical performances as schtick. But fans of Australian comedy duo, The Umbilical Brothers, know something the rest of us might have forgotten- physical comedy, in the right hands, can be smart, it can be surprising and it can make you laugh until it hurts. And Shane Dundas and David Collins are definitely the right hands. For over two decades, they have been waking comedy fans up to a new twist on the oldest form of comedy, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
Soon after they arrived in New York City for a four week run at Theater 80, I sat down with the Umbilical Brothers who helped me rediscover comedy that isn’t just for your ears. Their performances are a fusion of a very physically engaging pantomime, amazing vocalizations, and stand up comedy, with elements of slapstick and a healthy dose of Jackie Chan-esque martial arts inspired choreography thrown in. I don’t want to over-explain what they do- because if you haven’t seen them before, I don’t want to deprive you of the moment of surprise and understanding you get when you are sitting in the theater watching it unfold. It’s a moment that the Brothers (who aren’t related) love. “I prefer those people,” David said, “because it’s a complete revelation; ‘what the hell is this thing I’m enjoying!?” But be assured, this is not ‘birthday party’ entertainment, or old fashioned, or generic, and you’re not going to roll your eyes wondering why you let some writer for a website talk you into checking them out.
Describing what Shane and David do is a challenge, even for them. “I swear. It’s been 26 years and we can’t,” Shane told me. The first clue that their shows are something dramatically different from other pantomime performers is that they consider Jackie Chan to be a major influence on their art. “We used to go and see Jackie Chan movies every weekend. Jackie Chan movies are like a ballet.” They borrow both the physicality of those films, and the sound effects that in Chan movies were added to the action after the fact. “Basically when we started, we would come back from Jackie Chan films and we would do Jackie Chan films.” Shane clarified that they are referring to the 80’s era, “back when he was not being supported by wires just walking down the street because he’s broken just about everything on his body so now it’s like, ‘could you get that pen over there Jackie?'” With that, I witnessed Shane and David spontaneously break into a pantomime of a late-era Chan being supported by wires that was so well coordinated that it had to be rehearsed. They assured me that it was not.
Their performance requires a symbiosis between the two, and they are so interconnected that they could not do the show without each other– hence the name, The Umbilical Brothers. Shane explained how they chose the name. “This thing we create can’t exist without both of us. We’re intimately linked, we have this connection. So we just needed to find a name that epitomize this connection you cannot break.” Elbow soup, they dismissed early on, but they had considered the Zipper Brothers, and Schwartz and Egger as alternate names.
Shane and David first met in acting school in Australia, and discovered their rapport in a jazz dance class. They were asked to find a partner, and had to choreograph the middle part of a routine to the Beatles, “Drive My Car.” David and Shane chose to put a fight scene as their middle part. Their first attempt to collaborate was not entirely successful, but it was unforgettable. “David did a spinning flying kick.” Shane said, “It was amazing, but it actually connected with my nose. He broke my nose in a dance class, in acting school.”
When they first started fooling around with what would later become their careers, they were actually mocking mime class, sneaking back into the lecture theaters to mess around using the PA system to make each other laugh. David would jump around the stage, while Shane would stand at the lectern, where the mic was fixed, and make sounds to match David’s movements. “It was never a plan,” David explained. “It was always a joke. We were always taking the piss as we would say, out of mime classes … we were making fun of mime classes.”
From there they invented a five-minute routine that they performed in a stand-up comedy competition. But, David said, “I don’t think the stand-ups liked us because we weren’t doing stand-up.” Shane sometimes calls what they do “stand-up slapstick” though, because he says “their attitude toward slapstick is one of a stand-up’s attitude to the world.” And there is absolutely a stand-up component; their choreography is also commentary. “The stand-up looks at the world and critiques it and deconstructs it. We do that with slapstick. It’s the same viewpoint, but on a slapstick.”
With the elements all forming, they formalized their partnership while on a trip to the United States to perform at a theater conference with a bunch of groups from various international training schools. David said that it was at that conference that they realized they were on to something interesting. “One night everyone was getting up doing pieces. We showed the five-minute routine that we had. It’s the only thing we had and everyone laughed. We realized that the Americans were laughing, but also the Polish were laughing and they couldn’t speak English. The Swiss…the Turkish and the Swedes couldn’t speak English. There were sections that couldn’t speak English, but they were laughing just as much as the rest. We thought, there’s something here. We were actually on a plane from Milwaukee to Chicago when we invented the name “Umbilical Brothers”. We thought, when we’re not acting, we could just maybe do this just to get a little bit of cash. And that’s what we’ve done for 26 years.”
Since then, they’ve performed in 37 countries, scored a year long off-Broadway run in New York City, a Drama Desk nomination, the Helpmann Award (Australia’s Tony), the Edinburgh Critics’ Choice Award, and created six shows, and four DVDs of their performances. They were named two of Entertainment Weekly’s “100 Most Creative People In Entertainment,” and have performed before the Queen of England, opened for Robin Williams, and appeared on Letterman, Leno, and just last week, performed on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.
Their current show, Speedmouse Re-squeaked is high concept. It’s a show, within another show, Shane said. “We are trying do a show and then something, this extra plot on the outside of the show that’s stopping the show from happening.” In the show within the show, the Brothers have created a fantastical world in which they have digitized themselves so that they can fast-forward the show, slow down to a frame-by-frame, or rewind. But then the added layer– something goes “wrong”. Someone has gotten a hold of their remote control and is altering their performance. They demonstrated this for me, getting a huge laugh from their audience of one. It’s all carefully choreographed, but it’s also mayhem– planned mayhem, resulting in a show that feels improvised. There’s also a twist ending, and some elements of audience interaction. Their relationship with the audience is important; without it, the participation wouldn’t work. “Generally we have great, a great rapport with the audience because they are playing the game with us,” Shane said. “It is a childish mindset. The concepts– that’s for us to figure out. It’s for you to just enjoy the show and they buy into it as you would as a child watching a show. It sort of taps into some part of the audience’s brain, so it’s really good will with the audience.”
Their ideas can come from anywhere, and the development process sounds remarkably like stand-up- generally starting with an observation that turns into commentary on that observation. “There’s an observational call, and then you extrapolate in an absurd way. I guess it’s just a foundation for most comedy. What’s the least appropriate thing to happen right now?” For example, for a routine they performed on the Tonight Show, the Brothers are battling a fly- something delicate, or as David said “fluffy.” But what if that fly was some kind of super fly that couldn’t be destroyed? And that premise leads to their ‘set’, communicated through a movements and sounds, rather than conversation, which creates a wildly different atmosphere from stand-up. Within their multi-genred and somewhat magical world, they can play with straight silliness, but they can also be subversive, and sometimes both at the same time. Regardless of whether they’re making a point or just making you laugh, you can really let your guard down and just have fun.
The Umbilical Brothers will be performing Speedmouse (re-squeaked), an updated version of their hit show, Speedmouse, for a four-week run starting February 21, 2017 at Theatre 80. Produced by WestBeth Entertainment, tickets are $35.00 plus fees and are on sale now. Special notice that Monday and Tuesday performances have been changed to matinee shows on Saturdays (1:30pm) and Sundays (2:00pm) during the Umbilical Brothers run. For full dates, links to purchase tickets go to www.umbilicalbrotherslive.com