The name Jim Henson is synonymous with clever, inventive puppetry, and there was a little sigh of disappointment in many circles when his Muppets became the exclusive property of the family-friendly Disney Corporation in 2004, 14 years after Henson’s untimely death. And though the furry creatures of Sesame Street remain outside the Disney realm, they are, of course, geared toward children, and somewhat less entertaining for adults then they once were. I mean, have you seen Elmo?
But what about the early spirit of the pre-Sesame Street Muppets? There was a time when Kermit was subversive. If you’re old enough to remember the Ed Sullivan Show, you might recall a cheeky green frog who was up to some dark tricks and wasn’t nearly as benign a character as the lovable amphibian we all came to know on the Street.
Be of good cheer. Brian Henson and the good people at Henson Alternative, a division of the Jim Henson Company, have taken his dad’s more anarchic spirit and channeled it into a lively new stage show. “Stuffed and Unstrung,” combining puppetry and improvisational comedy, comes to the McCarter Theater on Friday, April 13, at 8 p.m. The show has garnered excellent reviews across the country. Entertainment Weekly called it “amusingly ribald and a tad controversial.”
Notice that we mention puppetry, not muppetry. These are emphatically not the Muppets. That name belongs to Disney now. This show has more in common with the Broadway hit Avenue Q and the witty, intelligent, interactive improv shows made famous by Chicago’s Second City, L.A.’s the Groundlings, and the evenings with master improvisers Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, who visit central New Jersey on a regular basis.
“Stuffed and Unstrung” treats the audience to the unusual sight of puppeteers parading around the stage, in full view of the audience, using that audience’s suggestions and the prompting of the host to create hilarious puppet sketches that are projected onto a screen. Sometimes, you just don’t know where to look –– at the people or the puppets. And that’s half the fun.
It was an alumnus of the Groundlings, Patrick Bristow, who helped Henson mold the show into its current form. Bristow, who is best known from the sitcom “Ellen,” has had roles in many TV shows and films, and is an award-winning stage actor in Los Angeles. But it was his skills as a teacher of improvisational comedy that brought him to Henson’s attention five years ago. He also usually acts as emcee for the show, though he will not be in Princeton.
“In the beginning, it was just a class,” explains Bristow in a phone call from his California home. “I was asked to come and teach the puppeteers some improvisation for a few weeks, just to give them a new skill set, and it went well. And I said to Brian, ‘Maybe they should do a little demonstration for the other employees, give them some real-world experience.’ He invited about 200 people, and our demonstration became a little bit of a sensation, got a standing O.
“Everyone had so much fun, Brian said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ And we got the interest of the Aspen Comedy Festival, without even asking for it.
“But at that point we didn’t know what to do with it: ‘Is it a TV show? Is it a stage show? I don’t know. Are people even going to care about watching puppets doing improv? I don’t know.’ So it really was one of the most organically developed projects I’ve ever been involved with.”
Henson and Bristow did realize that it would be a waste not to continue somehow, given the talent and enthusiasm of the puppeteers, a few of whom had improv experience in theater school, or at the Groundlings, but many of whom had never improvised professionally before. “But the funny thing is,” says Bristow, “Puppeteers, especially television puppeteers, have these long hours when they are on set waiting, and they have their puppets with them, so what do they do? They entertain themselves, they improvise. And so they really took to it. They picked it up instantly. I just had to show them how to shape scenes and be sensitive to story structure. Now, improvisers who have to learn to puppeteer, that’s the really hard one. For a good long time while they’re learning to puppeteer, their improv level will go down a notch, and they get really frustrated. So it takes real determination for our improvisers to become decent puppeteers.”
It was Henson’s idea to use a screen that would project the puppets as they performed.
“Brian knew that if we just did the puppets onstage, they would just be so small that if you were 10 rows away, you’d miss a lot. The whole camera and screen approach was Brian, and together we decided to go kind of deconstructivist and not put a wall in front of the puppeteers, though they didn’t think they’d be interesting to watch. But if one of them is, say, doing an effect where the puppet is ice-skating, I immediately look down to see how the puppeteer is doing that. To see the puppeteers enjoying themselves, that’s a delight as well. Audiences look back and forth, but mostly at the screen. It depends on what’s going on, and where you’re sitting. Some of the people who sit up front seem to look at the performers a little bit more. The great thing about puppeteering is that the performers can occasionally break up without ruining the scene, and it actually becomes one of those moments that is a delightful disconnect, to see a mad puppet on the arm of someone who’s crying, trying to hold back the laughter because their partner just busted them up.”
Each cast consists of six puppeteers, and each puppeteer will be called to perform as many as 15 different puppets over the evening. Every show starts out with the theme song, the upbeat and raucous “Puppet Up!”, kind of a come-join-us anthem.
“The entire cast wrote it,” says Bristow. “It explains what the show is about a little bit. We were at the Edinburgh Festival and Brian said, ‘You know, we really need something to open the show other than you just saying ‘Hi, we’re here.’ So with our musician, the entire cast assembled in an apartment in Edinburgh and we put it together. A real collaborative song — it’s not the kind of song that’s going to win a Grammy, it’s kind of homespun.”
“You see, we’re still getting people (in the audience) who don’t know how improv works. I kind of took it for granted that everyone had seen improv before, until one leg of the tour when I noticed that audiences were being ridiculously polite and respectful and I finally had to build it into my opening: ‘Don’t be polite and respectful! We’re going to make stuff up based on your suggestions.’ I give them permission to shout out and not to have to raise their hands. That’s a new experience for a lot of people.”
Probably not in Princeton, though. This is bound to be a hip crowd, though Bristow thinks that’s almost always the case.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it’s a broad demographic — people in their 20s up through their 60s and 70s. And one thing about our audiences: by and large, we tend to get people who are pretty smart. When they get into the swing of making suggestions, and they’re done saying ‘Gynecologist!’” and stuff, we start getting people shouting out weird things like ‘Pointillism Nightmare!’, so they’re people who have got some references and they want to challenge us.”
Challenge accepted. After all, this is Princeton. So don’t be shy. If, on Friday night, you want to shout out, “Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion Sock Hop,” go ahead. You can’t scare these people. After all, they haven’t puppeted up just to be cuddly. It’s safe to say that there won’t be a Snuffleupagus in sight.
‘Stuffed and Unstrung,’ McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, April 13, 8 p.m. $35-$48. For adults only. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.