At Stark Insider, we veer around the political. While it does creep in from time to time, I like to think it’s because we just so beyond that – which given the current crop of candidates doesn’t say a whole lot. So even when a show is peppered with improv bits like a submissive Michelle Bachmann as “Octawussy” with husband Marcus in a Castro St. bar, we still get around it. After all, the true existential issues are all over the adverts for Stuffed and Unstrung: Just what do you do when someone’s hand has been up your ass for forty years?
That’s the true issue taken up by Henson Alternative, The Jim Henson Company for strictly adult works. While none of the 80-odd puppets that graced the Curran stage would be out of place on Sesame Street, this material would get funding pulled faster than you say “tea party.” More’s the pity because the easygoing informality masked a professionalism that’s all too missing with adult fare. There was darn little that comes easily with this type of production, be it the on-the-spot choreography that allowed the group to work seamlessly together, the vocal demands or audience oddities. I don’t think I appreciated how truly revolutionary Jim Henson was until last night. To see the craft advanced by son Brian is worth the price of admission alone.
Short of an opening bit, and two vintage recreations of Jim Henson’s work from the mid 1950’s and early ‘60’s, the entire show involved a dialogue between master-of-ceremonies Patrick Bristow and the audience as he solicited suggestions for short bits that the six puppeteers then performed. The audience – many of who took in Avenue Q last year – responded clamorously, with suggestions that ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous. In interviews, Bristow notes that prostitution invariably is raised – with last night’s spin being “underwater prostitution.”
Curiously, it was the mundane bits that worked best, allowing the cast to riff off the possibilities of what to do with a brick layer instead of being boxed in by the political. While these were uneven, I couldn’t help appreciate that five minutes of bad improv requires more mental agility than I could muster in a year. Even when the bits are less than stellar, the six puppeteers create such shock and awe at their rapid fire material that you’ll never think of puppetry the same way again.
The two vintage recreations of Henson’s early work, start with the original black and white projections that morph into the live onstage presentation of the same work. The first of these, I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face., was created by Henson and his wife. As Bristow noted, early Henson work had elements of the subversive, to which Stuffed and Unstrung returns, after years of PG fare.
As opening credits noted, puppetry was originally thought to a stab at immortality and a vehicle for complexed and layered emotions. While this was presented as tongue-in-check, academic palaver, it’s hard not to return to these initial thoughts, as you exit the theatre dizzy with delight.
Stuffed and Unstrung
4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)
Curran Theatre, San Francisco
Starring Brian Henson, Patrick Bristow, Paul Rugg, Colleen Smith, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Ted Michaels, Michael Oosterom
Musical Director – Willie Etra
On the Web: www.stuffedandunstrung.com
Photos: Carol Rosegg