Theater review: ‘Stuffed and Unstrung’ at the Irvine Barclay Theatre

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The late, great Jim Henson’s gleefully anarchic spirit underpins ‘Stuffed and Unstrung,’ playing the Irvine Barclay Theatre through Sunday. This West Coast premiere of the off-Broadway hit, in which puppetry and improvisational comedy collide, is as uproariously uncensored an adult entertainment as you could hope for without lap dancers.

Its basic premise works on two levels, literally. Six superb comedians/puppeteers riff on audience suggestions while wielding an army of Henson creations in full view, their antics projected on overhead screens. A third crucial element ensures that no two shows are alike -- us. You cannot imagine the mayhem that erupts when an uninhibited house takes its cues from the gifted lunatics onstage.

Shepherded by charming host-director Patrick Bristow, who co-created the show with Henson’s son Brian, the proceedings fly by, from the goofy opening ‘Puppet Up’ polka onwards. Whether grabbing an attendee for on-the-spot puppet manipulation, creating a new Bond theme song/villain -- ‘Palin’ at the reviewed performance -- or rapping out a fairy tale, the gonzo evening recalls countless Groundlings shows over the years.

Understandable, since expert crowd-wrangler Bristow is an alumnus, as are music director Willie Etra and most of the cast -- Peggy Etra, Ted Michaels, Michael Oosterom, Colleen Smith, Allan Trautman and Victor Yerrid, all astoundingly versatile and quick-witted.


The vividly anthropomorphic puppet lineup is easily worth admission, and the replication of vintage sketches, such as Henson and Frank Oz’s classic take on Al Hirt’s ‘Java,’ seals the deal. ‘Stuffed and Unstrung’ hardly advances theatrical forms, but in the face of such non-stop hilarity, who cares?


Throw These Puppets a Line

-- David C. Nichols

‘Stuffed and Unstrung,’ Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. 8 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. Adult audiences. $38-$55. (949) 854-4646 x1 or Running time: 2 hours. [Updated: an earlier version of this review had incorrect curtain times.]