Potty-mouthed puppets have been unleashed on Chicago, and the improv scene will never be the same. Showing for one week only, Broadway in Chicago presents Henson Alternative’s runaway hit comedy stage show Stuffed and Unstrung, playing at the Bank of America Theater.
Hosted by Patrick Bristow of television fame (who is also credited as co-creator and director), the evening is as wild and raunchy as the audience cares to get. Stuffed and Unstrung is, with very few exceptions, a purely improvisational performance done through the medium of puppetry. These aren’t your normal run-of-the-mill puppets either, but puppets designed by The Jim Henson Corporation, the company that brought puppets to the level of cultural icons over the past 50 years. Created and performed by a team of career puppeteers including Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson), Stuffed and Unstrung seeks to reconnect with audiences who might consider puppetry to be mere “kids stuff”. There are most definitely no kids allowed at THIS performance.
It is one thing to hear the term “live improv puppet show” and a completely different (and completely wonderful) thing to actually witness. On stage is two shows: watching talented puppeteers flitting about on stage manipulating puppets to improvise whatever filters through the bawdy soup of audience suggestions, and a real-life no-fooling puppet show, displayed on two large screens on either side of the stage. The beauty of this set up is that even with the veil lifted and the audience seeing the cast’s bodies, the illusion somehow remains.
It is impressive just how technically difficult it is to create charismatic and relatable characters using strips of felt, funny voices, and highly stylized hand gestures. My favorite puppets included a husky caveman doing a prostate exam, a crab in need of a rabbi, and a trio of rabbits doing a variety show. The veteran cast’s skill at both puppetry and improvisation was most starkly articulated when Bristow invited an audience member on stage to sit in on a scene, proving that manipulating a puppet to talk while you are being spontaneous is harder than it looks. More importantly, Bristow is so effortlessly charming, and the improv so well executed, it can sometimes be easy to just gaze at the puppet show and ignore the insanity below. Colleen Smith and Ted Michaels had particularly amazing improv skills, but Henson, Drew Massey, and Victor Yerrid all had their shot at the spotlight.
Though much of the show is improvised, Stuffed and Unstrung also includes rare prepared treats, both familiar and groundbreaking. Two classic Muppet skits from the 50’s and 60’s were recreated live by Henson and crew, including the fuzzy slinky who gets upstaged by what appears to be his young cousin. While the classic sketches are delightfully endearing, Henson also wants to demonstrate the evolution in puppetry. Two sketches showcased some incredible innovations in puppetry while still allowing the freedom of improvisation. The first of these was a virtual puppet brain manipulated by remote and superimposed over a stand-in’s body, who told a group of interrupting puppets a bedtime story. The second innovation was a digital video loop maker, which enabled Henson to superimpose an octogenarian usher doing six different dance routines simultaneously.
Other than the few scripted sketches, Stuffed and Unstrung will be a different show every night. Fans of improv and of the Muppet franchise alike will have plenty to rave about, and I will never watch Muppets in Space the same way. That's a good thing.
For showtimes and ticket availability, contact www.broadwayinchicago.com or calling 800-775-2000. All performances are at the Bank of America Theater.
Photos courtesy of Broadway in Chicago Stuffed and Unstrung