Youmans: Audience takes control in 'Stuffed'

A band of miscreant puppets and six comedian puppeteers took to the stage at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on New Year's Eve, largely not knowing what the evening of improv puppetry had in store.

"Stuffed and Unstrung," Henson Alternative's foul-mouthed adult puppet show, succeeded in taking Orange County audiences behind the scenes of the Henson puppetry world, but an uninspiring audience at the Barclay put a damper on the evening's improvised humor.

"Stuffed and Unstrung" is your customary night at the improv — give or take 80 Jim Henson Co. puppets, each marvelously handcrafted and intricately detailed. And in true improv fashion, the setup was relaxed, casual and minimalistic, creating an unplugged performance.

That said, such a bare-bones production must rely on content to carry the show. Henson Alternative put everything on the line by handing over content control to the audience. Within these types of productions, audience suggestions for sketches can either make or break a show, sometimes regardless of the talent.

In the end, a performer is only as good as the material they are given. In this case, the improvisational sketches were sufficient but could have been funnier. However, this primarily resulted from lackluster audience suggestions. The humor was bizarre, not sophisticated or elegant. The concept of a talking puppet in some morphed Henson creature form is absurd to begin with. Add some alcohol to the mix, and the more you drink, the funnier it gets.

However, the night was not without its comedic highlights. An audience participation sketch involving a randomly selected married couple, Brandy and Brian, added an interesting twist to the evening's comedy when the two said that they trained monkeys as service animals.

In the sketch, two Henson puppeteers attempted to re-create the couple's first date at a fundraiser for the helper monkeys. As Brandy and Brian watched the recap, they let the puppeteers know how they were doing by hitting a bell for correct information and a buzzer for an inaccurate representation.

Overall, the audience volunteer pieces proved to be the most entertaining and full-proof sketches of the evening.

In addition to several song improvs, which included impressive off-the-cuff background vocals and harmony, a rap tune was added.

Host Patrick Bristow asked the audience for a name of a beloved children's' story, prompting a frat boy in the back of the auditorium to suggest a fictitious title: "Paris Hilton Goes to the Mall."

Ace comedian Victor Yerrid fearlessly took on the challenge, unleashing gut-busting rhymes that roasted the hotel chain heiress.

Other memorable sketches featured the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, puppets that appeared at the Grammys last year with recording artist Cee Lo; and a brand new original motto for Orange County concocted in ESPN cheer-squad style — "Bring Your Trophy Wives."

Aside from the improv, some scripted elements like vintage skits, pre-recorded video, and musical numbers were included in the production. A slice of history was uncovered in vintage works like Frank Oz's "Java" (1965) and Jane and Jim Henson's "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" (1956). Both pieces had not been seen by live audiences in decades.

The content of the evening's "Stuffed and Unstrung" performance

grew dirtier as the evening progressed. But, the overall vibe of the audience was rather PG-13, almost childish. The mood reminded me of a young boy discovering his first curse word and then gradually trying to progress to worse things.

So, as the audience began to push the limits, the comedians were tasteful and careful about how far they pushed the envelope. Then again, this element of criticism depends on the audience, which really gauges the show through their suggestions.

What impressed me most about the production was how it was two shows in one.

Traditional walls were stripped down to reveal the puppeteer underneath the elevated camera lens; Meanwhile, two large, hi-resolution screens displayed the final product in a televised form. As a result, every seat in the house was a great seat. Also, the audience could watch either format simultaneously, which provided insight into puppetry techniques and what went on behind that wall.

Only in this format can eyes be opened to the arduous nature of puppetry, an art form that carries a childish stigma, and therefore an assumption of simplicity.

In reality, the truth lies far beyond the public's general assumptions. Beneath the camera elevated six feet above the stage lay a realm of mayhem: puppeteers stumbling over one another and tangled within a sea of arms as they tried to manipulate the puppets within the specified camera frame.

Puppeteering is challenging work. Try holding seven pounds over head for extended periods of time while improvising and moving the puppet's body and mouth in sync to those just-thought-of phrases! Then, add the uncertainty of improvisation.

The versatile performers made it look so easy.

At times, they played outside of their gender, age, and species. Victor Yerid, Drew Massey and Allan Trautman really took improv to the next level by simultaneously attaching a personality and corresponding voice to a variety of puppets.

Since most of the show was unscripted, not only did the comedians have to improvise, but so did all of the other production elements like the music, lighting and sound.

"Stuffed and Unstrung" allowed audiences to both rediscover puppetry, at times a lost art, through the thrill of improvisation, pop culture, and adult humor, as well take a peek behind the scenes of the art and craft of puppetry.

HEATHER YOUMANS reviews arts events for the Daily Pilot.

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