Comedian Merijn Scholten became an Instagram phenomenon during the lockdowns with short films in which he imitates and magnifies characters. He wants to make them look lifelike, he said in this newspaper on Thursday. “You have to have the idea that you could have a conversation with such a figure.” His online success must have given him the impetus to create his first solo performance: Team Solo. Solo, because before that Scholten was also known, but less under his own name; he was one of the two Partizans, the successful cabaret duo of Merijn Scholten and Thomas Gast, who performed absurdist, but often recognizable sketches full of similar personae. Scholten wrote large parts of the performances of the Partisans, so, he said in the interview: “then you can do it alone”.
Filming himself with a selfie stick, he enters the stage, supposedly surprised to find a real audience. “A kind of live stream 3.0!” Team Solo starts off with a nice transition from its Instagram success to a packed audience. This is followed by enlarged character persiflages with wonderful voices and accents as we are used to from him: a Kabul city marketer (famous in the city marketing world for his slogan ‘lekker kabul de boeuf’), an overworked healthcare worker who became a flash delivery driver, an exasperated Dutch camping holiday maker in Normandy in 1944, a man with a passion bordering on the fetishistic for floating catering establishments or pancake boats, to name but a few.
The key question is of course: will Merijn Scholten work without Thomas Gast?
It is plausible that the duo sketches of De Partisans had reached their limits and optimum, as Scholten said in the interview. Renewal will have been difficult, although we probably would have had a great time with a few shows of about the same. It is suddenly salient that the last performance of De Partizans (Life an sich from 2018, written by Merijn Scholten) had a sketch in which Thomas Gast looks back on a successful solo career in the future, while we would never have heard anything from Merijn Scholten again . It suddenly turns out to be a reversed prophecy, perhaps even a mirrored wish.
New hybrid form
Two people on a stage has an advantage: as a viewer you quickly feel involved, as if you are part of a conversation. With an evening of solo characters, the danger of distance, loose elements and repetition is instinctively more likely to lurk. Scholten has not yet completely avoided that danger in Team Solo, but you can feel that he is discovering a new hybrid form. One in which the ‘real’ Scholten and the ‘characters’ of Scholten react to each other. For example, where he says that his girlfriend wonders who you love if someone falls into types all the time, to which he (of course) falls into a type in response: a fawning German who begs the ‘Fraulein’ to ‘Etwas zu essen’ because his ‘Mund trocken’ is three days ‘nur laufen’; goosebumps-inducing creepy.
The radio broadcasts in which Scholten is supposedly interviewed about his life are also a smart bridge to get personal in a sketch. Although you notice at those moments that Team Solo has not yet completely detached itself from Thomas Gast. After all, the radio voice (Scholten himself on tape) could just as well have been an opponent. The same applies to a personal conversation with god, who turns out to be a flat-talking Brabanter, very funny and believable. It becomes really hybrid fourth wall breaking when Scholten enters into a character conversation with people in the front row, but unfortunately that only takes a few minutes.
A number of times a character actually seems to have a moralistic message. To a pathetic high-pitched voice, “I feel so vulnerable,” a low one replies, “Get out there, take the plunge!” The only problem is that a message via a type quickly feels fleeting. It is never entirely clear whether Scholten is mocking his characters, or whether he actually means them; probably a combination, which makes any message semi-ironic. But the enlargement of characters does have another smoldering effect: you start to recognize traits of Scholten’s characters in ‘real’ people in the audience. Random conversations around you (about “shares” and “renters” and “Joh then you put a foundation board on it” and “…big fat new car!”) suddenly sound like Merijn Scholten is everywhere.
Also read the interview with Merijn Scholten: ‘Allowing your inner bastard is wonderful’
Team Solo. From Merijn Scholten. Seen: 23/11, Kleine Komedie, Amsterdam. Tour through 17/11. Inl: merijnscholten.nl
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A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 25, 2022