puppet up!

The Carolina Theatre in Durham is old and fancy. While it has been well-maintained, the chandeliers and box seats make one think of a more illustrious past. Who gets the sit in the box seats now? I've never seen that option when buying tickets for shows there. Perhaps it is on a secret website, just for rich people. Or maybe you just show up in a top hat and a monocle and they upgrade you to a box seat on the spot.

I've been to the Carolina Theatre several times. There is a modern performance facility just down the road, where touring Broadway shows play to crowds of up to 2,800, but I prefer the Carolina. Tickets are about half the price, and the hall, while still seating over 1,000, feels more intimate. Also, the acts that come through there are still fantastic, just less famous.

Last Friday night, I was sitting in the Carolina with my sister. We were there to see Stuffed and Unstrung. It's improv. With Muppets. For adults.

Hanging above the stage were two giant screens. On the stage itself was a video camera on a tall tripod. It was hard to see from the audience, but there were small monitors on the floor of the stage, facing backstage. And then, at stage left, was a wall of about 80 puppets. There were crustaceans, food items, aliens, woodland critters, and, in the spirt of Gonzo, a few whatevers.

Here's how each skit would go. The emcee would call a few puppeteers to the stage and tell them to "Puppet up!" At which point, he would hold the microphone towards the audience, where we were also supposed to yell "Puppet up!" He would explain an improv game and then ask for suggestions from the audience for the different fill-in-the-blank aspects of the skit (location, topic, occupation, etc.). This being an adult show, the suggestions went toward the bottom of the barrel pretty quickly. For example, when they asked for an occupation, someone yelled out "illegal gynecologist!" And then there was a skit where puppets sang a song about speculums. Not all the skits were dirty. There was also one about buzzards falling from the sky during a garden party, which would be perfectly appropriate for children or prim grandmothers.

Once the requirements had been established, the puppeteers would go over to the wall of puppets and just pick one out. I'm sure part of the decision was based on the skit parameters, but I like to think that each performer had their own favorites that they liked to use. What might make something your favorite puppet? I wish I knew.

And then they did a skit. They performed, with their arms up in the air, right in front of the camera on the tripod. The camera feed was linked to the giant screens (and the small monitors, for the puppeteers themselves to see), so you got to see two shows. First, the puppet show, just like watching The Muppets on TV, was on the screens. And then on stage, were the puppeteers with their arms in the air, shuffling around each other and making it all happen.
I have to say that the performers were better puppeteers than they were improvisors. Not that they were bad, just that if your only exposure to improv is reruns of Whose Line is it Anyway?, then you may be disappointed. But one of the advantages of live theatre is how easy it is to be swept up in being there. If I had been watching a YouTube video of the performance, I might not have been as impressed. But sitting there, surrounded by fellow North Carolina puppet fans, I laughed and laughed and laughed.

At one point, the emcee announced that we had a special guest: Clay Aiken! I suppose he was in town and just decided to take in a puppet show. He did a skit, working an orange monster Muppet pretending to be Elton John. Then, once he was finished, he went up and sat in one of the box seats. The mystery of the box seats solved.

There was some more direct audience involvement, too. A man was picked out to be in a skit after receiving about 20 seconds worth of instruction in Muppetry. When the emcee was wandering in the audience to select a victim volunteer, I sunk in my seat and averted my eyes, to be sure and send the clear signal that I did not want to be picked. But then, Brian Henson came out of the audience to perform with the audience member, and I wished that I had waved my arm and jumped on my seat. I'm sure I would have been very nervous to have been on the same stage with such Puppet royalty. Forget Clay Aiken.

This was perhaps my favorite of the improv skits, as the professional puppeteers integrated the audience member's newbie mistakes into the action. So when the volunteer's puppet's eyes were pointed at the ceiling instead of the puppets he was talking to, those puppets all turned around and looked, too, as if they were trying to figure out what he was staring at.

They recreated a couple of classic Muppet sketches that were written and performed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz back when they were young puppeteers ready to conquer the world. By being able to see the puppeteers, you could imagine young Jim and Frank doing those same acts.

During one sketch, they wheeled out a giant electronic contraption with two joysticks. The joysticks controlled an animated face that was also projected on the giant screens, like a virtual puppet. They did a sketch (about roller derby), with the physical puppets all interacting with the virtual puppet, while one of the performers stood with his face obscured by the animated face, as if he was the body. I'm not sure if this sort of puppet technology is useful at all. It's a neat idea - build a program with a large set of movements that can be controlled on the spot, rather than animating a character as it is used. It sure was cool.

What I really enjoyed about the whole show was how it was just a celebration of puppetry. Sure, there was improv and special guest stars and Muppets saying bad words, but it was really about the art form. They had the virtual puppet, showing that someone out there is thinking about the modern puppet. And they had a sketch featuring hot dogs, which were just stick puppets. The encore was announced by a shout of "Naked puppets!" and the puppeteers all did a number with just their hands.
That's why the two shows idea is such a brilliant format. A good puppet show can make you forget about the hand behind the curtain, not just by hiding it, but by creating engaging characters. Stuffed and Unstrung constantly reminds you that these things are just puppets, but then they show you why that is awesome.

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