It’s not your baby sister’s puppet show. In fact, University of West Georgia’s production of Avenue Q is as replete with adult themes and situations as any theatre production you’re likely to find, only, performed with puppets.
“Avenue Q” is the Tony award winning musical comedy by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. The idea is a fatalistically real parody of the PBS children’s program “Sesame Street.” We are a generation that has grown up with puppets teaching us life lessons – sharing, caring and you can do anything if you only try hard enough. Now we, and those puppets are adults and dealing with adult situations. The song titles show some of the over-the-top, yet stunningly real situations that face adult existence. Songs like “It Sucks to Be Me,” “What Do You Do with a B.A in English” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” are a bit hard to swallow at first, with the upbeat, jazzy tempo associated with happy puppets, only to be profanity-laced social commentaries. The irony is both humorous and thought-provoking.
This particular production, directed by Pauline Gagnon, has a lot of wonderful elements. The music is superbly performed by a live backstage band directed by Ed Thrower. The set itself is quite good, depressing as any alley in any city in America. The puppets are beautifully crafted little characters, designed by Jared LeClaire, recently recognized with a national award by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology. My personal favorites are the fatally adorable ‘Bad Idea Bears’.
This show requires a suspension of disbelief. It is performed with the actors fully visible, even costumed, masterfully by Alan Yeong, to match the puppet’s they are controlling. If this play has a weak link, it is that link between puppet and actor. In order to maintain the illusion that the puppets are characters, the actor has to fade into the background. Only some of the actors managed to do that. Andrew Ward Jr. and Kelly Parks managed to create a fully realized, if not disturbing, character from their puppet, Trekki Monster. The other actors were almost too good at the acting part, without transferring it to their puppet. I kept finding myself watching the expressive acting of the puppeteers, instead of watching the puppets, which then made it seem like a play where the characters walk around with stuffed toys on their arms.
It’s only fair to note that the actors are not professional puppeteers and did do a great job of the technical aspects of making puppets mimic mouth movements, hand gestures, even some dancing. It just lacked that little bit of magic that some puppeteers transfer into their characters, making them really come alive. It really depends on the audience to fully immerse themselves into that suspension of disbelief.
Not all of the actors had to worry about puppets. The non-puppet characters really shone in this production and managed to draw me back into believing the puppets were real. Gabrielle Benson was especially fascinating as Gary Coleman, who is also the super of the apartment complex. Benson must have made quite a case study of the “Different Strokes” actor and then put his mannerisms into a quirky, over-the-top caricature version of Gary Coleman. Watching her in the background of some of the musical numbers was probably my favorite part of the show.
The psychological significance of puppets engaging in binge drinking, passionate intercourse, homelessness, closeted homosexuality and ethnic discrimination could be quite the case study. UWG’s “Avenue Q” takes all of that, throws it in your face and lets you laugh at how crazy the world is. I mean, after all, with the economy the way it is, what do you do with a B.A. in English?
“Avenue Q” will be running April 3-6 at 7:30 and April 6-7 at 2:30 in The Townsend Center.