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Puppets Are People, Too

Walk Onto Electric Avenue Q


Avenue Q is a better show than you think it is. Unless you have already seen it or heard snippits from it or watched Youtube videos, the only thing you might know about the show is that it is summed up in a sentence as "An R-rated episode of Sesame Street." While that's accurate to some extent, Avenue Q is much more than just profane and vulgar puppets flopping about.

The show ran for more than 2,500 performances on Broadway from 2003-2009, which is impressive, but the most interesting factoid is that co-creator Robert Lopez won an Oscar for penning the songs for Frozen. While he's definitely hate-able for that, with Avenue Q, he and his co-creators were truly inspired.

Princeton is a young puppet who has just graduated from college with a degree in English. He is searching for a job and a place to live in New York when he stumbles across Avenue Q (he started at A, but found nothing affordable until then). The superintendent of the building is Gary Coleman, who has fallen on rough times after his parents stole all of his "Diff'rent Strokes" money.

He introduces Princeton to the rest of the Avenue Q gang. There's Kate Monster, a kindergarten teacher's assistant, Nicky and Rod, roommates who bear more than a passing resemblance to Bert and Ernie, Trekkie Monster, who is a weird hybrid of Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and Snuffleupagus, and even a few humans like Brian, a failing stand-up comedian and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve.

It would have been very easy to make these characters simply devices for jokes, stereotypes, and bad language, but the creators smartly realized that the novelty of watching puppets swear and have sex would have a very limited shelf life if they weren't worth getting invested in as "people." But there's no way to become invested in them as people unless the actors playing the puppets acting in the play are very damn good.

Michael Ellis and Kimmie Fountain play Princeton and Kate Monster, respectively, with Ellis giving Princeton the perfect blend of "aw shucks" wonder, while simultaneously grounding him in real pathos. Fountain gives Kate the voice of a Disney princess, flawless singing voice and all, and plays so well off of Ellis that one becomes truly invested in their romance. Joe Reynolds' Rod is Avenue Q's version of Bert, who has feelings about his roommate that are confusing him. Reynolds is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious, while giving the show a dramatic center on which to build.

What's also interesting about Avenue Q is that the audience doesn't have the remove of watching the puppets without the puppeteers in full view, as the puppeteers are unconcealed as they manipulate their characters. Most of the puppets have one actor who controls the mouth and movement of the character with one arm, while controlling the puppet's hand and arm with a stick in their other. Most interesting are two puppets in the show that are controlled by two actors simultaneously. One actor moves the mouth, does the voice, and places their hand through a sleeve into a glove, thus acting as the puppet's actual hand, while another actor controls the character's other hand. This range of movements with the hand and fingers allows the audience to suspend even more disbelief when watching these puppets sing and act their hearts out.

Trekkie Monster is one of the puppets with two actors running him. Actor Dave Felton controls the mouth, left arm, and performs the voice, while actor Brad Knowles controls the right hand. Watching the intricate dance between both actors as they move both hands in perfect synchronicity is exciting and fascinating to watch.

"The reason I did this show, outside of it being just an awesome script, is because I love puppets and puppeteering," Knowles said. "So it already fit well with my skill set. But I've never been someone's right hand before. There were some initial problems, maybe with him wanting to go one way and I the other, but those were resolved pretty quickly. If you notice during the show most of the time I have my hand on his shoulder so I can get a feel for where he's going to go."

So yes, puppets have sex and swear and there are song titles like "The Internet is For Porn" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," but they're catchy and have real messages buried in there. The final song of the performance is a showstopper as it reveals the theme of the entire show and left me sitting in my chair a bit stunned. It's rare to see a show that is side-splittingly hilarious and just the tiniest bit profound, but it's all there in Avenue Q.

Avenue Q

7:30 pm, September 11-13 & 17-19

3 pm matinee, September 13

The Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St.


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