Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Boffo buffoonery by puppets clever, raunchy

Overview : As a dad for the first time 45 years back, I remember watching Sesame Street with my kids on a black-&-white 16" screen. The conceit of the show was its ability to educate youngsters and adults both through clever puppetry and pop-up screens flashing words and phonics and social ideas they wanted us all to learn.

Fast forward to Avenue Q now playing at ACT's Granville Island mainstage. These same Sesame Street-type characters have morphed to Gen Xers with krappy college degrees and superb existential angst living communally on the eponymous Ave. Q. Together they fret about jobs and bills and sex and social relations circa Y2K. And "they" here means both the flesh-&-blood actors themselves and the hand-held puppets attached to their person. Sometimes you watch the actor, other times the puppet. It's fun

Meanwhile in today's update there's a wonderful "learn this word" screen -- schadenfreude -- let's derive joy from others' misery. Between that bit of sniggery and the number "We're All A Little Bit Racist" -- well, the innocent stuff me'n'the kids enjoyed back in the day went Poof! in a jiffy, har-har.

The show kicks off with a 23-year-old named Princeton (Andrew MacDonald-Smith) lamenting "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?", which segues nicely into the company challenging one another with assertions "It Sucks To Be Me" that ends with them all wondering "Is there anybody here it doesn't suck to be...?" 

First impressions : Today's matinee played to a decidedly white head/blue rinse crowd, for the most part, and it was obvious the sass of Q both delighted and "squeamed" them at the same time. Particularly the number "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" which featured the puppets Princeton and Kate Monster having endless congress in more positions than even the Kama Sutra spells out. Tenement super Gary Coleman* (Evangelia Kambites) has the line that aces it: "If you're doing the nasty, don't act as if you're at the ballet."

A decade back when Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx stitched together the characters and plotline and Jeff Whitty did the book, "Sex and the City" still reigned despite the "reality t.v." of 9-11 a couple years earlier. America was looking for divertissement driven as much by phantasy as by autogiography, thanks. Q answered that need nicely because of its hooks back to muppetry and Sesame Street as well as the relative innocence, still, of young people living communally trying to both break out and break in -- break out of juvenile mind-traps and break in to careers and security and "purpose". "Gotta find my purpose, gotta find me !" Princeton wails.

Plotline look : While the script has not exactly surpassed its "best-by xxx" date, for all its cleverness it is no longer as fresh as it might be though still scrappy and punchy.

The "in-the-closet homosexual" Republican investment banker, um, Rod, who's got the hots for roomy Nicky, denies he's gay and sings of a fictitious girlfriend in Canada as his cover. Well, quite frankly, that's post-trite in 2013.

The fleshy [non-puppet] Japanese therapist named Christmas Eve (Shannon Chan-Kent) is obviously an off-shore Pacific immigrant, but use of the expressions "ruvv" for "love" and "kirr" for "kill" clanked even on these utterly non-PC ears.

The kindergarten teacher (Jeny Cassady) is named "Mrs. Thistletwat". The over-the-top-ness of that name is just that -- was a decade back, too -- but not helped in the least when Kate Monster stresses the t-ness of the 3rd syllable emphatically each time she utters it.

The wonderful Trekkie Monster character -- Big Bird on bad acid -- played by Scott Bellis insists that the Internet has one primary purpose : "for porn". In Y2K that was probably a major purpose for newby computer users delighting in the medium's possibilities first-hand. But again, in 2013 when cyber-bullying and priests storing whole caches of child-porn on their laptops are daily news items, the joke loses some of its comic tumescence of yore.

Character take : Quibbles aside, Q is a marvel of flesh, felt and thrown-voices choreographed superbly by Director Peter Jorgensen who brags tongue-in-cheek he can now add "muppet porn" to his live theatre curriculum vitae.

Rick Lyon's puppets and their persona are wonderfully wrought and acted out by their puppeteers even as they have their own flesh characters to project, too. The Bad Idea Bear characters (Bellis and Cassady) are a delight of comic mischief, straight from the creators' amygdalae.  Bellis's Trekkie Monster and Bad Idea Bear personation are a highlight of the show. His voice projection in both parts is spot on. The choreography between Cassady and Bellis sharing the puppet character Nicky was step-perfect.

As the protagonist Princeton, MacDonald-Smith was expertly cast, a song-&-dance diva of the first order. Counterpart and occasional girl friend Kate Monster (Kayla Dunbar) has the best pipes on stage, no question, though Chan-Kent was no slouch in the aria arena either. Wannabe comic Brian (Andy Toth) was cast stereotypically, too -- the fatman struggling to urge laughs out of his brain, first, then out of his buddies. His wedding day costume by designer Jessica Bayntun replete with virgin yarmulkes for the goys was non-pareil.

Production values : Memory of this show will always take me back to previous-Jessie Award winner Marshall McMahen's striking tenement set -- an asymmetrical caricature of 1930's walk-ups in dirty reds and rust, like pop-up illustrations of skid road housing one might imagine from a kid's learn-to-read-book. The scruffy paving stones with candy-wrappers and other detritus littering the stage were just right. Musical Director Sean Boyntun led an able ensemble, his own dance on the keyboards and the crisp strokes by Niko Friesen on the drums particularly earful.

Who gonna like, who maybe not : The key to Avenue Q's success for viewers will depend on the degree to which they are prepared to just play along with puppets as people and people as puppets singing and dancing out this catalogue of familiar (if-dated) neuroses on stage.#   In my view the ideal demographic to enjoy it would be the 14-45 set, though Boomers will also relate from their break-out / break-in years. 

In 50 words or less... : A 20-something actor acquaintance told me last week she raved over ACT's and compared it favourably to a NYC production she had seen previously. "I'm going again!" she enthused. I heard some blue-rinsers say "Gosh that was funny!" while others I spotted looked simply glazed. In the end, when it's children's dreamworld meets adult reality -- Oz is Oz after all --probably any age can find something to relate to and have a heck of a laugh while doing so. 

* Coleman's character is based on the erstwhile t.v. child star of the show Diff'rent Strokes whose aura later in life dimmed to being a tenement manager in slummy NYC. His finest adult life moment, Kambites tells us, was when he sued his parents for ripping off his Strokes royalites, only to file for bankruptcy later. That vignette sync's terrifically with the overall tenor of Q and its characters.

# Here's how ACT describes the show in its media promotional materials. I could never improve upon it by tittle-or-jot so I simply reproduce it for readers for their benefit:

Warning : Full puppet nudity and other vulgarities will induce laughter. This is a puppet show. However this is not your kids' puppet show as it sneaks a peak at raucous sexual congress, failed childhood stardom, excessive drinking, moving in and out of a slummy neighbourhood, investing, mix-tapes, cute creatures doing bad things, singing boxes, getting laid off, finding your purpose, getting fired, getting rehired, ruvving [sic] someone but wanting to kirr [sic] them, exotic dancing, erotic dancing, exotic erotic dancing, homosexuality, racism, pornography, masturbation, interracial marriage, interspecies relationships (monsters and humans), roommates, coming out of the closet, coming out of your apartment, getting ahead in real life, going to college, pan-handling, wishing you were back in college, coming out of your shell, and recycling.


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