You'd think that in the presence of puppets — near Muppets, really — associated with the legendary creator of Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear, audiences would behave themselves, if only in deference to their innocent childhoods. You'd think. Yet when faced with improv-ready puppets on Tuesday night at the Bank of America Theatre, generally a classy joint, audience members came up with all manner of prurient suggestions, involving everything from porn stars to prostate exams and multifarious other unprintable scenarios wherein Henson puppets (some human form, most not) and their manipulators were encouraged by their paymasters to behave very badly.
It's certainly true that such suggestions were encouraged by Patrick Bristow and Brian (son of Jim) Henson, the creative forces behind "Stuffed and Unstrung," a live, adults-only show, performed by a highly skilled, Los Angeles-based cast of puppet-improvisers (including Henson), that had a decent run off-Broadway and now is playing the Bank of America Theatre for a week as part of the TBS Just for Laughs Chicago festival. The 90-minute show, consisting mostly of traditional improv games played by a plethora of intentionally random puppets selected from dozens sitting on racks on the stage, aims to re-create some of the anarchic improvised dialog in which those Henson puppeteers indulged when the cameras were not rolling. By freeing the content from network standards, the thinking behind this show goes, more creative comedy ensues.
Fair enough. Laughs rang out Tuesday night. When it comes to puppets, even smutty puppets, the Henson brand remains formidable. And along with a formidably brilliant comedian and improviser named Colleen Smith, Tuesday night's show (note the cast may vary on other nights) offered the chance to see Henson work the puppets, as this brilliant guy has been doing virtually since birth.
Better yet, stuffed between the improv games are a couple of classic Jim Henson Company scenes, as first performed by Henson's parents and their early collaborator Frank Oz. They're lovingly and delightfully re-created here by some of the best in the business.
"Stuffed and Unstrung," which clearly delighted many Muppet fans in the audience, is a very clever conceit in that it allows you to see the puppets and puppeteers live on stage, but also to watch a second show playing out on big screens in which the puppeteers are not seen. In other words, you don't just get to laugh at the inventions of the puppeteers, you also feel like you get a window into how all those great Henson movies and TV shows were actually made. Around me, I could hear the gurgles of people clearly realizing for the first time that to watch Kermit and Miss Piggy on TV in the Muppet glory days was like only watching the upper branches of a forest of illusions; the real action was taking place in the now-visible trunks beneath. Brian Henson's richly expressive work here is, as you might imagine, gripping to watch, especially in the way he and his puppeteers create the illusion of depth as the puppets move away from and toward the camera, deftly playing with the edges of its field of vision. Most improvisers watch each other, maybe cheating a few glances in the direction of the audience. These guys never take their eyes off the monitors, playing both to the live audience and the all-important camera lens. You find your focus split and your head bobbing around, but it's a fascinating schism.
Whatever the apparent attraction of smutty puppets doing off-color things, the fact remains that improv — puppet, human, whatever — always works better when the suggestions show a little more imagination, and neutrality, than a wearisome progression of adult locales and sex-infused scenarios. So the chirpy Bristow would be well advised to dial back the smut, merely for artistic reasons. He could also use a guy with a roving microphone in the audience, given the trouble he had hearing and translating suggestions in a venue that's on the large side for this interactive show.
Tuesday night, the funniest scenes (including a puppet James Bond movie featuring a felt, svelt Rahm Emanuel as the diabolic villain) ensued when the actual, spur-of-the-moment characters of the randomly selected puppets were allowed to emerge, as distinct from being forced into juvenile contortions. So if you're going to "Stuffed and Unstrung" this week, keep that in mind before you open your big mouth.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-$60 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
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