It took puppets in “Avenue Q,” which is playing at the Breckenridge Backstage Theatre right now, to help me realize my quarter-life crisis at 25 wasn’t terribly abnormal.
Yes, I spent my 25th birthday mostly in bed, lamenting the fact that any life I’d ever dreamt of as a competitive athlete (specifically, a figure skater) was definitely over.
As a recent college graduate with a B.A. in English — just like some of the characters in “Avenue Q” — I had surpassed that wide-eyed, hopeful “I’m going to be special and make a difference in the word” phase, with a flash of a tassel, and at that point, my worries and experiences mirrored the puppets’ main dilemma: “What is my purpose in life?”
The theme sounds heavy, but “Avenue Q” marvelously takes a poignant life question and turns it in to a series of hysterical scenes and scenarios, from serious relationships and one-night stands to careers (or lack thereof), sexual identity and even racial tension.
“Avenue Q” is billed as “Sesame Street” meets “South Park,” and it’s a definitely more adult-oriented “South Park” than Big Bird and his buddies; don’t bring the kids to this one. I literally laughed (not just chuckled) through nearly the entire show, from dialogue between washed-up, child-actor Gary Coleman (who happens to be the superintendent) to occasional songs like “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Internet is for Porn.”
Behind the scenes
Using large, heavy puppets is a new challenge for the Backstage. Behind the stage hang not only the puppet characters, but also multiple versions of them. The show moves so quickly that there’s no time to change the puppet’s clothing; as a result the main puppet, Princeton, has about 10 versions of himself partially dressed, as well as nude (for a comical love scene).
The seven actors took special puppetry training. They worked first with their own gestures and facial expressions, then transferred them onto the puppets, moving the felt creatures’ mouths and arms just enough to make the main characters more human, but not enough to render a mockery of the method. Artistic director Christopher Willard also had to figure out new lighting techniques and moving doors that slide, hinge or act as shadow boxes for both the puppets and humans because he wanted to pattern the show very closely to the one on Broadway.
“It’s such a smart show,” Willard said. “It’s something when 20-somethings hit the real world and the lessons from ‘Sesame Street’ don’t apply.”
And as far as Gary Coleman, he comments: “Who better to represent when your life doesn’t go the way you planned but a failed child star.”
Human actors bring the puppets to life not through overhead strings, but by being on stage with them, which adds an even richer component — a kind of symbiosis — to the show; whatever the puppet does, the actor mimics, and vice versa. And, of the seven actors, some (just like “Sesame Street”) play humans the whole time. Those actors who bring the puppets to life finish the show literally shaking from fatigued muscles and wrists because the puppets are so heavy, said Carolyn Lohr, who plays both a love-sick college grad and the vampy Lucy who tries to steal her man.
Last Sunday (June 30), the majority of the audience was well over 20 — more like 50s and 60s — and they roared with laughter, perhaps because they’ve struggled with obsessing with their “purpose,” let go, then maybe even revisited it again and again: It’s kind of a universal theme, and it’s appropriate for any adult, say, over 18 or 19.
The Breckenridge Backstage Theatre has been selling out its 100-seat capacity, so make your reservation before the show closes July 14. Tickets range from $20-25, and the production runs on weekends.