This article was corrected on April 13, 2000.
David Collins and Shane Dundas, aka the Umbilical Brothers, undoubtedly wasted their childhoods watching cartoons on television in their native Australia. Luckily for us, this thoroughly unproductive pastime has apparently stunted their emotional growth, entrapping them in a kind of arrested development where they can do little but act out their sibling rivalry (even though they aren’t siblings) in an imaginary cartoon landscape, which, using props no more sophisticated than a microphone, they endow with a juvenile, spirited, mildly demented and completely infectious silliness.
Vaudeville, you see, is back, if it ever really went away. Recent acts like the Blue Man Group and the clowning of Bill Irwin have proved that eccentric performers can build an audience the same way the Three Stooges did, with inspired antics that make people laugh almost despite themselves. The most necessary ingredient is uninhibited fantasy, the willingness to do things that seem just plain stupid.
And, no question about it, lots of what happens in “THWAK” is just plain stupid, in the best sense of the word. While both of the performers are multitalented — Collins is the expert mime and Dundas the expert sound-effect vocalist — together they create sketches where dogs catch taxis to chase bones, or flies do serious battle with humans. Amid all this mayhem, one will often complain that the other has gone too far in the pretending: “Does that look like comedy to you!?!?!” cries Collins, mourning the sweet-looking but foul-mouthed puppet who’s been blown away by an imaginary cannon.
Perhaps the Umbilical Brothers’ greatest talent is making their slapstick seem like it’s out of control when it clearly isn’t. The scenes might start out innocently enough, but soon almost each skit escalates into a full-fledged battle going at a manic pace, taking advantage of all the vocal and physical skills the performers have to offer. The wilder it gets, the more impressively choreographed the show becomes under Philip Wm. McKinley’s direction.
And, oddly enough, the funniest moments actually come when the two performers slow down. There’s no story to be found here, just one big power play, as Collins and Dundas sporadically fight for control of the microphone, and therefore the entire world. When Collins does take control and decides he wants to sing a torch song, the bickering is pure character shtick, and it demonstrates that even when these guys aren’t pretending to be the Roadrunner and the Coyote, they can still be funny.
Another inspired recurring motif involves “traditional European mime,” an act referred to as “That’s a funny German.” Dundas and Collins become an alter-ego team, now named Dieter and Klaus, who perform mime acts like the descending spiral staircase, which, according to Dieter, they’ve been doing for “5,827 years.” This gives the Umbilical Brothers a chance to do old-fashioned bits while parodying them at the same time. After all, Collins tells us, the idea of the show was to “Drag mime into the year 2000. The answer,” he says, realizing that this doesn’t quite make sense, “was sound.”