Stuffed and Unstrung at 2012 Just for Laughs | Comedy Review
"You have a hand up your ass," says one puppet to another at the top of Stuffed and Unstrung which opened tonight at the Bank of America Theatre as part of TBS Just for Laughs. "Never speak of that!" replies the other. Much information can be gleaned from this brief exchange. First, this is a puppet show. Second, it's a naughty one. Stuffed and Unstrung was created by Henson Alternative, a wing of the Jim Henson Company aimed at mature audiences. (These puppets are filthy.) Third, in their brief exchange, they reveal the most exciting and unforgettable part of the evening—the breaking of the fourth wall. Stuffed and Unstrung is a two-for-one gift in that we both experience a live puppet show, full of the kind of wisecracking we'd expect from Henson, while simultaneously getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the puppeteers and technology that propel the experience. It's cool stuff.
To speak simply, this is a fancy improv show done in the style of Whose Line Is It Anyway? With puppets in hand, performers (many of them schooled at the Groundlings in Los Angeles) aim for short-form improv scenes based on audience suggestions not unlike the ones taught in lower level classes at Second City. That's either good or bad news depending on your point of view. Anyone who's sat through a handful of improv shows will recognize some of these "games" instantly. One scene, for example, was performed in the style of film noir. That might be a novelty in Tulsa, but in Chicago it's been done a million times. In fact, an improvised puppet show called Felt happens Wednesdays at iO. Still, you've never seen improv quite like this.
For starters, the kind of foul-mouthed suggestions that performers at Second City and iO tend to discourage (and I don't blame them), host and co-creator Patrick Bristow (Ellen, Seinfeld, Friends) encourages. There's a reason for this. The suggestion at our show of motorboating (a sex act in which a person puts his face between between his partner's breasts and shakes his face from side-to-side) would inspire groans on the Mainstage. However, when performed between two puppets, in this case bunny rabbits, the spectacle is uproarious and unexpected. Likewise, a dirty line like, "I'm totally bald down there but I get it waxed anyway," is twice as delicious when delivered by a muppet.
Then there's the technology. With Stuffed and Unstrung, Brian Henson and his crew aren't just aiming for cheap laughs, they're pulling back the curtain and inviting you to explore the behind-the-scenes wizardry and inner workings of puppeteering. Who knew, for example, that it can be so highly physical at times or that it takes multiple people to create the illusion of a tap dancing number? Speaking of which, dozens of these creatures sit lifeless onstage, serving more or less as a low-tech backdrop. But when an ensemble member grabs one and brings it to sudden life based on the suggestion of speed dating the change is dramatic and thrilling.
Not everything about the show works. Stuffed and Unstrung is punchline driven and very few scenes are ever fully flushed out. Some, like an A&E biography of RuPaul, were just plain groanworthy. And were it not for the exact recreations of two of Jim Henson's earliest puppet experiments and also two pleasing games played with audience members, the show would seem long at 90 minutes. As it stands, this is a sly and enjoyable night of theater for improv nerds and Muppet fans alike—but mostly the latter.