Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Muppet Love and Stuffed and Unstrung

This beautiful illustration to your left "We Miss You Jim" comes from Amy Mebberson. It's part of an art project for Tough Pigs which commemorated the 20th anniversary of Jim Henson's passing. The legendary creator of The Muppets died on May 16th, 1990 but his vast contribution to popular culture lives on. And so does his son, who we'll talk about in just a minute.

This Tough Pigs website sounds like it's pitched exactly to me (or anyone of Gen X and early Gen Y) "Muppet Fans Who Grew Up". If you grew up watching Sesame Street or The Muppets or you probably feel an unusually strong pull to creatures made of tangible felt, foam and fur. I feel that so strongly that I often find myself looking at a special effect and thinking "If only that were a puppet." Or maybe that was just during the ghastly "improvements" to the original Star Wars trilogy and the ghastly prequel trilogy.

If you grew up in the 90s or 00s will you feel misty eyed about CGI when you're in your 30s and 40s? I'm always curious about that. What will replace it? Do today's teens and tweens love puppets but only in a retro ironic way?

Anyway... I'm bouncing off stage topic like some hyper hand held felt thing. So let's back to the point. A month or two back I was invited to a preview performance of Stuffed and Unstrung and though I've been tardy reporting on it, this week of Henson memories, is a good time to make amends. Stuffed and Unstrung is from Henson Alternative™, the adult label within the Jim Henson Company. The show is the brainchild of Brian Henson and it mixes improv comedy, puppeteering, television and even a little CGI into a manic mix of never-the-same-twice entertainment.

Believe it or not, I'd never been to a live improv show, so though I had nothing to compare it to I had a good time with sore cheeks from laughing afterwards. The comedy was uneven, some bits going over much better than others, but I suspect that's true of all improv. The show was hosted by Patrick Bristow, who you'll remember as the redhead dance coach in Showgirls, so I kept hearing those line readings in my head. I know that movie too well. It's a sickness.

A regular part of the improv is audience suggestions so some of the comedy quality is dependent on the group mood. When Bristow chose well from the shouted suggestions, the funny followed.

The puppeteers choose their puppets for each skit before they know the topic. They only know the template of the skit. One of the first skits was a job orientation scenario where the puppeteers had to discuss random slides that flashed on the screen as if the audience was the new hire. The audience chose "prostitution" as the job and the short skit was belly-laugh inducing. It was also an early clue that Colleen Smith, pictured far left, who had chosen an incongruous shrub puppet but somehow made it work was Best in Show. (Here's her funny theatrical reel). She found regular inspiration throughout the night, often providing the biggest and most unexpected laughs with a well chosen line or movement.

One of the oddest elements of the show is that each of the skits is performed as if it were being made for a television show. You're watching the puppeteers live but you're seeing only the puppets projected on screens to either side. It can be a bit distracting but it also amped up the comedy on some skits. One in particuar, which attempts to teach puppetry to a volunteer audience member was much much funnier performed this way since you were watching both the performance and its sorry result.

There's a lengthy multi-part skit near the end of the show that uses a film shoot scenario (of course that'd be a favorite!). The titled, culled from audience suggestions, was the hilarious mashup Dances With Virginia Woolf (only in New York, you know?). The skit must have been exhausting for the puppeteers as Brian Henson (Jim's son and the Stuffed mastermind) was playing a temperamental auteur who hated every take. He kept ordering the puppets to reshoot the scene in different styles and genres (audience suggestions), so the comedy was in the shifting and the repetition of this "movie". The biggest laugh came when the film was reshot in "Hipster" style. Colleen's puppet walked off the set with deadpan teen angst drawl "I'm leaving parentals and you can read on my American Apparel t-shirt whyyyyyy"

The Dark Crystal Mystics

I talked with Brian Henson after the show and had to get assurance that The Power of The Dark Crystal, a sequel to the landmark 1982 puppet film, was going to be puppet heavy and not overly reliant on CGI. He guaranteed there would be plentiful puppets but they're also using some CGI. So I didn't learn much.

After the improv comedy, they invited a few bloggers and press types onstage to film little promo bits with the puppets. Here I am interviewing them.

(I was mortified at my own performance: I didn't know what to do with the mic and forgot that puppets don't need them being mic'ed from below and all, they film you from below and the camera adds 10 lbs; It's a cruel cruel world but I am happy to report that I've lost 7 lbs since then.) I asked the puppet to my right what his favorite movie was and he said Ben. Hee. The turtle/armadillo creature to my left preferred Over the Hedge. He also wanted me to know that he'd auditioned for several roadkill parts in films but never got callbacks.

Oh the rejection-heavy life of an actor... even an actor made from felt, foam and rubber.

All in all Stuffed and Unstrung is a fun night at the theater. It's a good way to reconnect with your inner child (puppets!) while also humoring your outer adult (adults-only humor!).

Here's their official site.


FrenchGirl said...

OT:does anyone read Bret Easton Ellis'interview on and his misoginist commentary about women directors?
after the totally idiot article on gay actors acting straight characters last week,Ellis deserves a prize of idiocy!

FrenchGirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pedro said...

hehe, very funny read. I don't personally like puppets, but I think an improv show would be great.

whitney said...

You got to interview muppets!! I'm so mega jealous I can hardly type.


whitney -- it was kind of exciting. they even asked me if i wanted to choose the puppets. but there was a wall of like 50 puppets and i felt so overwhelmed that i just let them go with the ones they were "wearing"

Derreck said...

haha, i love it. show us the video!