Tweedster’s Note: Let’s face it, friends: there’s no such thing as journalistic objectivity. It’s common to refer to the “fair and balanced” or “fit to print” notion as nothing more than an ideological construct. Despite that, yours truly often feels constrained at times even here, in the bastion of free performance-speech. Sometimes, dear readers, you just have to spill your guts. So, in that spirit, OJ proudly presents the first in a series of entries entitled “The Mind-Body Connection,” a romp through the dissociative world of performance criticism. The Mind Review is what you’ve come to expect from us—thoughtful, informed inquiries into the epistemologies of performance (plus, we need to feel that six years of grad school wasn’t a total waste); The Body Review is the gut, visceral, perhaps inappropriate reaction of delight and/or horror. And what better performance to begin with than Henson Alternative’s Stuffed and Unstrung at the Union Square Theatre.
Holy shit! I’m in the same room as Brian Henson … this is probably the closest I will ever get to a religious revelation.
If you grew up as I did, you’ve retained a vast appreciation for the Muppets (even though these, as the company jokes, are not the M-words). You still laugh out loud at The Muppet Show and still need a nightlight after watching The Dark Crystal. (On a visit to Ostrich Land, recently, I could not stop yammering about how emus are creepy because they look like Skekses.) Nothing is more pure and joyous than the gaping maw of a Muppet in revelatory bliss. Not even the laughter of children.
For you, Stuffed and Unstrung is a childhood wet dream. Wait … bad metaphor. Oh well.
Thankfully, it is nothing like Avenue Q (although the easy comparison has been bandied about too much anyway). It’s more akin to Who’s Line Is It Anyway and Viola Spolin games, only much more complicated.
The coolest conceit of the piece is that, thanks to a camera set up down center and two screens above the stage, not only do you watch the performers live with the puppets, but you also get to see how it translates to the puppet-only performances you know and love. Dangerously, then, the comedy is cool, but the technical and choreographic elements upstage the main idea in a very cool way. Add to that the re-performance of two early Jim Henson films (“Java” is particularly exciting), and Stuffed and Unstrung plays more like a DVD’s special features that are more exciting (perhaps to the hardcore fan) than the film itself.
The improv is the piece’s boon and bane, as improv tends to be in form: some moments are pee-your-pants funny, others don’t quite land. Some of the jokes that don’t land are then turned around and made funny again. But all in all, fun fun fun fun.
I am in the presence of Muppets! MUPPETS!!! It’s a dream come … did that boar just shit a churro?...
Strange to say, but Stuffed and Unstrung is a fascinating case study in media culture and performance. Perhaps not staged with a deconstructive eye, the conflict between the live performance happening onstage and the mediated, filtered experience of the puppets alone on screen are a reminder of Auslander’s mis-grounded warning in Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, that concert-goers of today tend to focus more on the Jumbotron than they do on the performance they paid good money to see “live.” Although the screens are about the enhancement of the live experience, much as they are in rock concerts, these screens have the added bonus of creating a dialectic between puppeteer and technical performers.
Three particular moments come to mind that made this great tension feel palpable. The first is when an audience member is picked to join a scene, and onstage, the bumbling, almost slapstick attempts by the unassuming performer are hysterical and desperate; contrast this with the screen, where the puppet appears lifeless, lost, and, frankly, pathetic compared to the professionals. Second is one scene which involves their new “digital puppetry” setup, where a CGI “puppet” interacts with the live performers on the shared space of the screen. Onstage however, puppeteer Tyler Bunch looks more like he’s about to enter the world of the Lawnmower Man than toy about in typical Henson shenanigans. Finally, and most tellingly, the audience is invited to Tweet at the show during intermission, which subsequently appear on the screens in a glorified screensaver. It is their moment to be on stage, on the screen, much like the virtuoso performers. Messages were cheered for when recognized, and conversations were even started among disparate sections of the audience.
It’s not a stretch to compare the puppeteers to the Twitterers, though: in an hyperreal age of instant communications and overnight celebrities, our ability to perform “extensions” of ourselves online, give voice to disembodied form, is a type of puppetry in the digital age. But it also points to the mind-blowing commercial culture of becoming puppeteers: common Tweets read “This is hilarious!” “U should come see this now!” and, naturally, “ROTFL.” The line between pupeteering and marketing, it seems, has been blurred almost entirely.