Chicago Theatre Review
Puppet Improv With and Adult Twist
By Lazlo Collins
When I discussed going to see “Stuffed and Unstrung” a few people commented about going to see the Dirty Muppet Show. Acquaintances discussed how I would be shocked by the language and subject matter. Well, the language and subject matter are the least of this quick romps problems as told by cute puppets.
“Stuffed and Unstrung” is a 90 minute puppet sketch comedy show. The set-up is quite clever. We see two big screens that present the sketches as if you were seeing them on TV. Under one screen is a wall of displayed puppets and under the other screen are director’s chairs so the cast members not performing can hang out; In the center of the stage we actually see the puppeteers manipulating their furry hand held characters; and this is projected on the big screens. With hands high and heads low, the talented cast of puppeteers put their voices and puppets through the improv paces.
With the exceptionally funny Patrick Bistrow to keep things moving, the chosen puppeteers for each sketch are asked to “Puppet Up!” and pick a displayed puppet. Entering the playing area, the scenes topic or object has already been decided by the audience.
Mr. Bistrow gets the audience going when he asks for suggestions for places, actions, objects or people before each sketch. His witty banter keeps the show moving. It looks like he was also the person to call the scene when it went too long or didn’t work at all.
Let the fun begin! What could possibly go wrong?
With improvisation you take a risk. The sketches can be funny or fall flat. “Stuffed an Unstrung” is a combination of both. “Of course”, you say! “It’s the nature of the beast” is a familiar tune.
The disappointment comes not with the VERY talented and great cast of puppeteers, but the construct of the show itself.
At the start of the show, the audience is encouraged to clap, shout and participate! When the audience is asked for suggestions by our host, the audience obliges the cast with suggestions and scenarios that made even me blush. I am by no means a prude, but given these types of suggested improv shows tend to degrade to the lowest common denominator. Amoung the many suggestions that made me roll my eyes, were Mr. Sandusky, blow jobs, and vulva. Maybe I was just sitting in the wrong seats.
All suggestions aside, (admittedly Mr. Bistrow did a great job jockeying around such interesting suggestions) the best of the show came from the moments with puppeteers showed their true talents. The recreations of classic puppet moments from early puppeteers are where the show made its mark with pleasing style.
Most of the crass suggestions made for difficult scenes to sustain. It was when the talented cast was able to pull away from the ridiculous scenes, and just entertain, with clever double takes and thrilling voices. The pedigreed leader of the pack, “Brian Henson” indeed, comes from the Muppet Henson’s and serves as the chairman of the Jim Henson Company. Mr. Henson, was excellent, along with the rest of the puppeteers and the Miskreant Puppets. The performing cast switches up regularly.
“Stuffed and Unstrung” was a whole lot of fun; but I felt the venue was far too expansive to truly capture the shows intent. I would have preferred some less bawdy suggestions. It seems that to make the scenes funny, you don’t need to be crass. The simplicity lies in the cleverness of the actors and not whether they could devise a scene around lesbian speed dating.
The finale was as entertaining any sketch that was done all night.
See “Stuffed and Unstrung” for the shining examples of some of the top puppeteers in this country. You may not enjoy the entire ruckus with the shouting audience or some of the more offensive scenes, but you will grin and Fozzie Bear it.
“Stuffed and Unstrung” runs through Sunday 17 June 2012 at the Bank of America Theatre. For tickets go to broadwayinchicago.com