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BWW Reviews: Insanely Funny 'STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG' Puppets Up!

Be forewarned. Those coming to see this "new puppet show" expecting those delightful Jim Henson Muppets are in for a real surprise... but a really good one. Perhaps the funniest, most masterfully inappropriate use of puppets since the Tony-winning, Sesame Street-parodying Avenue Q, STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG is an uproariously gut-busting show that combines the wonder of those superbly crafted Henson workshop creations with the bawdy, decidedly adults-only humor of improv. A production offered by Henson Alternative—the adult arm of the Jim Henson puppetry empire—this well-received off-Broadway cult hit makes its West Coast Premiere presentations at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in Orange County, California through Sunday, January 2.

Created by director/producer/writer Brian Henson and improv actor/host Patrick Bristow, the show relies heavily on shattering that preconceived notion that such cuddly puppets are meant for skipping, hugging, and la-dee-dah-ing with child-like innocence. Let's just say... Kermit never acted like these guys. From hotdogs (!) going through a 12-step program to aliens at a strip club, or from a competitive cheerleading routine from an inappropriately-named high school to pot-smoking "bad bunnies," adult-skewing humor is in play and the audience is crying from non-stop laughter. Curse words do fly with abandon, but never abritrarily. The hardworking cast of six puppeteers—Peggy Etra, Ted Michaels, Michael Osteroom, Colleen Smith, Alan Trautman and Victor Yerrid—not only have such amazing puppetry and voice talents, they are also all impressive quick-witted improv comedians. Musical director Willie Etra provides in-the-moment musical accompaniment from the side of stage. What a fun job these guys must have!

Unlike Avenue Q, though, the show doesn't adhere to a specific story interrupted by narrative-forwarding songs. Here, open-ended structures are presented, but it's up to the audience to fill in the blanks, which means that repeat audiences will never see the same show twice. As the cast prepares to "puppet up," making executive decisions from the stage is the host, who offers up certain situations or scenarios to the audience, then fields their suggestions out of a barrage of overlapping screams that the cast will then act out using randomly-selected puppets from a colorful wall of felt and foam. And when the routine feels like it's nearing its comic exhaustion, the host also signals the cast to end it. (In this particular performance of the show, host duties were assumed by Grant Baciocco who stepped in for usual host Bristow who had to leave due to an unexpected family emergency).

There's no attempt at concealing the human puppeteers here, but after a while, you tend to forget their presence as you find yourself watching the puppets on the huge video projections high above both sides of the stage. A stationary camera propped up high center stage captures everything the puppeteers choose to show in front of it, even though just below, off camera, the puppeteers themselves are just as hilariously animated.

The resulting interactive mélange is pure comic genius, creating a palpable excitement with each new highly-anticipated vignette. It's plenty funny enough to see these cute puppets speak, sing and behave in such manners, but by deriving their material from an arsenal of suggestions from an audience that wants nothing more than to up the ante on how far these fantastical childhood puppets are willing to go, the show becomes a funny, shared, communal experience. Actually, some the show's funniest moments involve direct audience participation, particularly the older married couple whose first encounter is "dramatized" for them on stage (the couple has a bell or a buzzer to confirm the truthfulness of the puppets' assumptions about the couple's first meeting).

And as a reverent, helpful reminder of Jim Henson's legacy (and lunacy), two "classic" Henson routines (one of which can be seen here) are faithfully re-created live on stage, proving how wonderful and satisfying this art form truly is.

Overall, STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG is one insanely funny show from start to finish. This witty show's talented improv masters are not just outright excellent actors and singers (yes, they sing too!), they accomplish all this with their arms shoved into adorably-decorated pieces of felt, while thinking quickly to utter their next unrehearsed line or lyric (or rap rhyme). It takes a specific type of skill-set to pull this off, and these guys do it winningly. While a few, um, older patrons chose to leave—perhaps unexpectedly offended by all this puppet mayhem—most will find that the loud, infectious, non-stop laughter from everyone around you will slap any reservations out of you. Need great, genuine hearty laughs? See this show when it comes to a theater near you!

Photos of the Original Off-Broadway cast of STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG by Carol Rosegg.

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STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG presented by Westbeth Entertainment and Henson Alternative continues at the Irvine Barclay Theatre through Jan 2. The show plays Wed. Dec 29 & Thurs. Dec 30 at 8:00 pm; Fri. Dec 31 at 7:00 pm & 10 pm; Saturday Jan 1 at 8:00 pm; and Sunday Jan 2 at 4:00 pm.

Tickets ranging from $38 to $75 can be purchased online at www.thebarclay.org, by phone at 949-854-4646 x1 or in person at the Box Office. Box Office hours are 10AM-6PM M-F, Noon-4PM Sat-Sun. A small number of VIP seats with Gold Bar privileges are available. Call the box office for information.

STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG is recommended for ages 16 and up and contain graphic language.

The Irvine Barclay Theatre is located at 4242 Campus Drive in Irvine.

For more information, check out www.StuffedAndUnstrung.com.


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From This Author Michael L. Quintos