Avenue Q tells us what the Internet is really for

This is the last post covering the events of my family’s Chrifsmas vacation to New York City (and it only took a week to write all of it out for this blog!). The last thing I want to talk about is the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which we saw in the afternoon early into our trip. I don’t particularly feel like summarizing the musical, so I’ll let Wikipedia do it for me:

[Avenue Q] is largely inspired by (and is in the style of) Sesame Street: Most of the characters in the show are puppets (operated by actors onstage), the set depicts several tenements on a rundown street in an “outer borough” of New York City, both the live characters and puppet characters sing, and short animated video clips are played as part of the story. Also, several characters are recognizably parodies of classic Sesame Street characters: for example, the roommates Rod and Nicky are versions of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, and Trekkie Monster is based on Cookie Monster. However, the characters are in their twenties and thirties and face adult problems instead of those faced by pre-schoolers. The characters use profanity, and the songs concern adult themes. A recurring theme is the central character’s search for a “purpose.”

That’s enough background information to talk about what I really wanted to cover: the difficulties in dealing with puppet characters in a live stage production, and the excellent way it is handled by Avenue Q. Avenue Q has three human characters who work pretty much the same way any human character works in any other play. But there are four actors who each play two different puppets. The actors wear drab gray clothing and kind of blend into the background, and when any of the other characters/puppets are speaking or interacting with them, it’s always directed at the puppet, not at the actor.

But the actors aren’t ventriloquists; you can easily see their mouth moving as they talk and sing (as well as the mouths of the puppets that they operate). And, this is the brilliant part, the actors also use their own body language and facial expressions to convey what the puppet is experiencing. The director must’ve realized that humans are much more emotive than puppets can ever be, so the human actors act as if they are the puppet. I spent the majority of the play watching the actors’ faces rather than the puppets, because I felt more emotion coming through that way. The actors did a great job, and I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been casting for that play, finding people who can act well, sing well, and puppeteer well, simultaneously.

One issue that came up occasionally was when both of an actor’s puppets were in the same scene. They would inconspicuously hand over one of the puppets to a member of the ensemble cast but keep on doing all of the voices of their puppets. So it was really funny to watch a conversation between two puppets played by the same actor; first the actor would speak while moving his puppet’s mouth, then for the responses, he would speak in the other character’s voice while the ensemble cast member holding the other puppet would move its mouth. Sometimes they weren’t even onstage, so they would speak their part from offstage while the ensemble cast member moved the puppet’s mouth in sync. It required some pretty elaborate choreography, but it worked, and it allowed them to have a larger cast of puppet characters while keeping the cast small.

I also enjoyed the play because, five minutes in, I realized two of the characters were named Kate Monster and Trekkie Monster. Those names sounded awfully familiar; they were the names of two of the characters in the hilarious World of Warcraft machinima music video “The Internet is for Porn” (watch it below the fold). And, indeed, the song from that video was from Avenue Q. So I eagerly awaited the song, and then joyously watched it performed live in front of me, as I sang along with the lyrics in my head. I should point out that the way the song is handled in the original play is even better than it is in the World of Warcraft machinima. For instance, it helps to have the background that the “Gary” referenced in the song is Gary Coleman, who has become a poor slumlord. And the way Trekkie Monster randomly appears from different windows on the set shouting “For Porn!” in the intro, and then the other characters each join them from their respective windows for the chorus, is excellent.

And I haven’t even gotten into the explicit puppet-on-puppet sex, and I shan’t, not in a blog post. I could never do it justice. You’ll have to see the play for yourself. I highly recommend it. Hell, it won a Tony Award, which is almost as much of a recommendation.

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