Throw these puppets a line
Warning to all nostalgic “Sesame Street” fans: The puppets in “Stuffed and Unstrung” are not the Muppets.
They do hail from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and they do exude childlike charm. An orange-haired girl with spongy purple skin accessorizes her tweed suit with pearls. Another, whose bright yellow nose sticks out 5 inches, wears blue hair tied in pigtails. And a rock-star gorilla sports sunglasses, studded bracelets and hoop earrings.
But this cast of 80 puppets doesn’t work from a script. They perform comedy improv, often playful and sometimes wickedly dark. The production bills itself as “100% Uncensored” and is recommended for age 16 and older. No Kermit the Frog or Cookie Monster to be seen.
The show comes to Irvine following a 16-week run off-Broadway, where it garnered favorable reviews, with Entertainment Weekly naming it one of the year’s top 10 stage shows. The production has evolved from “Puppet Up! — Uncensored,” a workshop-style show that played festivals and, for two years, monthly performances at the Avalon Hollywood before developing into the more polished, high-tech “Stuffed and Unstrung.” The show’s next step is a national tour, probably to begin next fall, producers said.
As with traditional improv, the “Stuffed and Unstrung” actors create comedy sketches in response to audience prompting. The twist as developed by director Brian Henson, son of Muppet creator Jim Henson, is that a cast of puppets act out the improvisations. For Henson, the loose-lipped flavor boosts the show’s comedic value. “To do the funniest that you can, you let your performers untether themselves and uncensor themselves,” he said.
But it’s not intentionally off-color. “We don’t set out to do a dirty show,” said Patrick Bristow, who developed the show with Henson and acts as master of ceremonies. “It’s amazing how often people will say, ‘It’s the filthy puppets!’ We’re so much more than that.”
Unlike televised puppet shows, where the camera frames the puppets only, the “Stuffed and Unstrung” puppeteers stand at center stage in full view of the audience, similar to what audiences saw with the Broadway hit “Avenue Q.”
Audiences are meant to watch the people creating those skits, according to Henson. Simultaneously, the audience can see the puppet action projected on large video screens — as it would look on television.
The dual performance allows audiences to see puppeteers in “all their glory,” as Bristow put it. He said that “it’s like looking behind the scenes of a magic show” when audiences see the puppeteers making their characters sashay, swim, float, or lift a barbell – ad-libbing all the while.
For Henson, puppetry allows actors to be more outrageous than they would be in their own bodies. “Puppets can go where actors can’t go,” he said. “The unrequited love between a goat and a fish, you can perform with puppets. And the metaphors that you can do when you pick up a crab, or a monster, is a lot more liberating than what you can do with actors.”
Henson is ever mindful that the show doesn’t come from “a precious puppet company.” “We’re always aware that they’re a bunch of felt and ping-pong balls and stuffing.”
‘Stuffed and Unstrung’
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, 7 and 10 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $38 to $75
Information: (949) 854-4646 or https://www.thebarclay.org