Chicago Theater Review: STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG (Bank of America Theater)

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by Dan Zeff on June 13, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Dan Zeff's Chicago review of Stuffed and UnstrungThere is something disconcerting about watching an R-rated Muppets show. After all, for decades the Muppets television shows and movies have been the gold standard for family entertainment, funny and endearing for children and droll and hip for adults. Now comes a 75-minute live show called Stuffed and Unstrung at the Bank of America Theatre, loaded with Muppet characters talking dirty and doing nasty things in full view of the audience.

Stuffed and Unstrung features the brilliant skills of six puppeteers who select their puppets from a vast number of about 80 arranged on a wall at one side of the stage. The puppets are human, animal, and sometimes indefinable. The puppeteers, under the authority of MC and director Patrick Bristow, then go through improvisational sketches based on ideas Bristow solicits from the audience, like an activity (speed dating), a biography (Rue Paul), or DanZeff’s Chicago Review of Stuffed and Unstrunga line for a song (The Cubs Will Win the Pennant). It’s the responsibility of the black-clad puppeteers, who provide the voices and actions, to bring the bits to comic life. Bristow is the link between the performers and the audience, bandying racy humor with the patrons, including numerous references to being gay.

At the outset, a puppet operated by Brian Henson announces that the audience will be seeing two shows for the price of one. Viewers will be watching the actual show as it is projected on two large screens. They will also be able to observe the puppeteers in action as they do their thing in the middle of the stage, when they aren’t sitting at the side waiting for the next call from Bristow. A camera set high on center stage films the puppets with the puppeteers operating below camera range. The performers do have monitors at the bottom of the stage so they can watch to make sure the puppets are positioned correctly. It’s a fast-paced and intricate concept that continually tests the perfromers’ expertise.

DanZeff’s Chicago Review of Stuffed and Unstrung

The spectators can choose to concentrate on the video screens, on the performers in action, or try to swivel back and forth between the two. By the halfway point in the evening, I was concentrating on the puppeteers in action because too much of the improv material wasn’t working for me. Improvisation is a notoriously chancy business. Even at Second City, which has honed improvisation into an art form, there are misfires. I can imagine Stuffed and Unstrung as a continuous laugh-riot in performances where each improv magically clicked – such was not the case on opening night.

DanZeff’s Chicago Review of Stuffed and Unstrung

At the Bank of America Theatre, too many of the sketches fell back onto R-rated material to stir laughs from the audience, though many of the spectators responded like they were having a grand time, especially the raucous younger members of the crowd. Notwithstanding the whooping and hollering from the audience, many of the sketches simply never caught fire. Still, there were some clever visual bits, like a dancing skit that used camera tricks to convert one puppet into a high stepping troupe of hoofers (this was a set piece and apparently not improvised). And when the content of a skit grew tiresome, the viewer could always fall back on enjoying and admiring the teamwork and manipulations of the puppeteers.

DanZeff’s Chicago Review of Stuffed and UnstrungThe show injected a couple of bits by Jim Henson and Frank Oz from the old Muppet shows of the 1960’s as a nostalgia exercise. The show might benefit from a more equal balance between proven material (brought up to date) and fresh improv ideas. That would reduce the performers’ burden of being instantly clever as the improv bits come and go. A deep reservoir of classic Muppet material could be tapped without inhibiting the basic adult thrust of the show.

Bristow keeps the performance moving briskly, doing his best as host to keep the raunchy nature of the presentation percolating. He’s a quick-witted man, and to his credit he’ll end an improv bit virtually in mid-sentence if he sees it’s ended its comic shelf life. But the heroes of the production are the six puppeteers – Henson, Peggy Etra, Drew Massey, Ted Michaels, Colleen Smith, and Victor Yerrid. If their material often faltered, their performing skills were always up to the mark. Willie Etra’s musical accompaniment included a spot-on replication of a James Bond motion picture theme for a Bond sequence that was one of the evening’s cleverest visual bits.

The off-color puppetry will bring to mind Avenue Q, a similar R-rated puppet show that was at least as raunchy as this show, but the scripted vulgarity was consistently funnier. Then again, Stuffed and Unstrung could hit on all comic cylinders every performance after opening night. That’s the glory of improvisation. You just never know.

DanZeff’s Chicago Review of Stuffed and Unstrung

photos by Carol Rosegg

Stuffed and Unstrung
Henson Alternative and WestBeth Entertainment
Bank of America Theatre in Chicago
ends on June 17, 2012
for tickets, 800 775 2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago

tour continues
for dates, locations and tickets, visit Henson

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