Friday, March 23, 2012

Wanna See Some Puppet Porn? Avenue Q Opens Tonight

Posted By on Fri, Mar 23, 2012 at 8:31 AM

Sayaka Mizusawa, Trekkie Monster and Fiona Soul, where the air isnt sweet.
  • JIM CALDWELL
  • Sayaka Mizusawa, Trekkie Monster and Fiona Soul, where the air isn't sweet.
Remember Sesame Street, where it's always a sunny day and everything's A-OK? (Except maybe for the day kindly old Mr. Hooper died and Big Bird was really sad.) Avenue Q ain't that kind of street. As you might expect from a show co-created by The Book of Mormon Tony winner Robert Lopez, this is a wised-up thoroughfare where dejected adults survey their disappointing lives with the aid of foul-mouthed puppets who do a lot more than tickle Elmo.

It's a comedy, it's a musical, and it's opening tonight for its first local production through April 15 at Street Theatre Company, who just finished a sellout run of The Who's Tommy. Curious about the logistics of putting on a puppet musical for adults — we repeat, FOR ADULTS — we asked Brian Hull, who helped design the puppets and train the actors operating them, to discuss some of the challenges of a production that requires full puppet nudity.

Did you build the puppets yourselves, and if so, do you have to work from specific designs?

We did not build the puppets; there was just not enough time to start building so many puppets from scratch. Then there was an option to rent but Cathy Street and show director Martha Wilkinson asked for advice on another course to take. The idea was to purchase already built puppets, nicer versions of the kind usually used for schools and churches and the like and adapt those to look like the characters from the Broadway show. There were a number of people who helped with the puppet transformation — including Mary Bailey, Cathy Street, Sarah Levis, Helen Ralston and Lynda Bayer.

What is the most expressive feature of a puppet, the part that's hardest to get right?

The most important thing about any puppet's expression is getting the eyes right. We ended up cutting out the plastic, factory-manufactured eyes that came with the puppets and replaced them with colorful felt, buttons, and beads. With the hand puppets, the eyes make all the difference; where they are looking is the difference between a puppet looking alive or like a stuffed animal on someone's hand. Also, feathers were added to Trekkie Monster, and the gives him some fun action when he moves. Wigs were added to certain characters, and some were spray-painted to change their color. And if you know the show, of course it was necessary for boobs to be added to the "Lucy" character.

Which puppet did you have the most fun making and/or acting?

We aren't acting in this show — our role (Mary Bailey and I) was to assist in re-creating the puppets to work for the show and advise the actors who will be the puppeteers — and they are doing a fine job — it's not easy! You don't just put a puppet on your hand and "go"... But they are fine musical theater performers and very smart. As far as building, I enjoyed mostly working on Trekkie Monster while Mary worked hard to re-invent the body for Lucy.

Is it restricting or freeing to act through a puppet?

I would say there is a very 'freeing" aspect to working with puppets. Puppets can say things in a way that human actors can't - for example, the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q. It wouldn't have the same effect without the puppets. Puppetry has a powerful and colorful history of anarchy — from Punch and Judy shows to the Bread and Puppet Company... and you can do many things with puppets that would be impossible to do with actors. Puck from our Midsummer Night's Dream is a puppet that can actually "fly" around the audience. The only restricting aspect is the awkward and sometimes quite uncomfortable positions your body has to get into to make certain things work with the puppets. But it's worth it.

What will you see puppets do in Avenue Q that you've never seen before?

Well, let me be very clear: Avenue Q is definitely NOT for children. It's given a PG-13 rating; I might say it pushes to "R" — there's a lot of adult language and situations, and even puppet sex at one point. There's a big production number entitled "The Internet is for Porn." But for the right audience, it's edgy, funny, topical and quite entertaining. But NOT FOR KIDS. It's hard to make the point about age appropriateness when Americans are used to puppets being about Sesame Street and the Muppets.

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