Paper Wing’s racy, irreverent, Tony-winning Avenue Q does Sesame Street one better.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Racism has not been this funny since Chappelle’s Show. And not just racism, but homosexuality, urbanity, profanity and reality. As a result Avenue Q has deservedly won itself three Tonys with its zeitgeist-tapping, coming-of-age, musical storytelling, delivered by hand puppets and live actors in homage to Sesame Street.
Its basic story is pretty patented: Princeton, a new college grad, makes his way to the cheaper part of the city (presumably New York) to launch into a life of “purpose,” but begins to encounter life’s snags – crummy apartment living, the necessity of money and the banality of work, temptations, relationship problems. The neighborhood in which he finds himself is stocked with misfits, but he befriends a handful of neighbors that form a surrogate family.
First the puppets. Teacher Kate Monster (Jill Miller) aspires to build a school for ostracized monsters, a “Monstersori” school; Rod (Shane Dallmann) is an uptight Republican banker with a secret who lives, a la Bert and Ernie, with the irreverent Nicky (Jay DeVine’s voice and puppeteering, assisted by Penny Morgan). Trekkie Monster (a young Robert Feeney voicing and puppeteering, with assist by Sonita Cardoza) is a take-off of Oscar the Grouch, though Trekkie’s obsession is not trash, per se, but Internet porn. The cute and fuzzy pair of Bad Idea Bears (Erin Davison and Mark Weddle) come and go like the twin apparitions of the angel and devil of the conscience. Lucy the Slut (Katie Wieser) is a lusty temptress who recalls a wanton, amoral Miss Piggy.
The humans playing humans – the same way there are live humans roaming Sesame Street and The Muppets stage – include struggling stand-up comedian Brian (Daniel Matthey) and Gary Coleman (Lindi Lewis). Yes, Gary “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” Coleman.
This show is ridiculously funny and fun. Way funnier than Paper Wing’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, and as much fun as their Rocky Horror Show. We’re introduced to most of the characters in the ensemble song “It Sucks to be Me.” Aspiring comedian Brian, age 32, has been laid off by his company. His friend Kate Monster empathizes, then wallows: “Why don’t I have a boyfriend?” Roommates Rod and Nicky are aggravating each other. Gary Coleman, his Diff’rent Strokes money stolen by his parents, is the building superintendent.
“This is real life!” sings Princeton.
“You’re gonna love it,” Nicky replies.
“We live on Avenue Q!” they all sing.
The puppets work like ventriloquist dummies, except without legs. The actors operating their puppets move and dance in full view, emoting with their faces the words they lend their puppets. They exist like informative shadows, their puppets drawing the attention while they add humanity.
When Rod (the Bert doppleganger) breaks down and cries over his loneliness, puppeteer/actor Shane Dallmann pinches up his face in anguish. It’s a tender moment, and the emotion that runs through the plotlines of the “lives” of the puppets feels surprisingly meaningful. And why not? They’re dealing in love, anguish, longing, confusion, friendship – human stuff. These messages are carried on complex ensemble dialogue and monologue, clever and profane language, and instantly catchy music (from a four-person house band led by Eric Johnson), which helps them pierce our cynicism.
But this is still adult fare. When they first meet, the love interests of Princeton and Kate get into a skirmish when Princeton asks if she and Trekkie are related because they’re both monsters.
“I find that racist,” replies an indignant Kate Monster. But they soon agree, in song, that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” and it’s one of the most unshackled show tunes since the South Park movie’s “Uncle Fucker.”
Co-creator Robert Lopez collaborated with Matt Stone and Trey Parker on The Book of Mormon, and that combination of “anything goes” and social critique feels natural and unforced. When faced with dilemmas, the two fuzzy Bad Idea Bears appear and tempt characters into doing things like buying beer instead of paying the rent. If the character doesn’t comply, they cry. It’s excruciatingly cute – and wrong.
One of the funniest and economical roles comes from Trekkie, voiced like a dopey bullfrog by Feeney. When Kate sings about the virtues of the Internet, which she will teach to kindergarteners, Trekkie interjects his take, “The Internet is for Porn”: “Me up all night honking me horn to porn, porn, porn!”
If you can appreciate a ballsy, racist Asian joke song like “The More You Ruv Someone,” if you get that this is an inclusive show and no one involved is actually racist (well, maybe a little bit), then you’re in a good place. And that place is Avenue Q.
AVENUE Q plays 8pm Friday and Saturday, through Jan. 23, except Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and 4pm Jan. 7, 14, 21, at Paper Wing Theatre, 320 Hoffman Ave., Monterey. $25/general admission; $22/senior, student, military. 905-5684, www.PaperWingTheatreCo.com.