Eugene Weekly : Theater : 9.22.11


Sesame Streaking
Potty-mouthed puppets ponder life’s questions in Avenue Q
By Anna Grace

“It sucks to be me!” warble the brightly clad puppets and people in cheerful, Sesame Street style. These grown-up puppets can’t quite grasp the fact that they haven’t yet saved the world or become famous, or even found gainful employment. Plus, they’re mostly single and probably penniless.

The Tony Award-winning Avenue Q, currently running at Lord Leebrick Theatre, follows the travails of 24-year-old Princeton (the charming Trevor Eichhorn and puppet), a recent college grad searching to find his purpose. As in Sesame Street, the issues Princeton deals with are everyday real, though instead of a quick moral lesson from Maria or Big Bird stepping in with a self-esteem-boosting song, questions are answered with more questions and Schadenfreude is the word of the day.

Characters far too familiar are the Bad Idea Bears (Ben Goodman and Mindy A. Linder), who are often on hand to convince Princeton of the economic advantage of buying a case of beer instead of a six-pack, or who are happy to show up with a rope just as he’s feeling life’s not worth it anymore. 

What makes the work of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (concept, music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book) brilliant is that Sesame Street hits most of us deep within our psyche. We watched it in our earliest homes, and the long-running PBS kid’s program is familiar in the true sense of the word. After a particularly stressful week, try pulling out a disc of the original season of Sesame Street and chill while contemplating the contributions of the letter C. No joke. It’s powerful.

Q has us laughing at ourselves, and treats us in the end with the existentially comforting finale “Only for Now,” which proves that everything from a kiss to our hair to the Tea Party is with us for but a moment in time.  

Yet as most of us are roaring with laughter and groaning with identification, a number of audience members will shrink in their seats. This show is not for everyone. To call Avenue Q politically incorrect is a gross understatement. Lord Leebrick is an intimate space, and when two puppets start going at it — having gold-medal-worthy sex not 20 yards away from you — well, it’s kinda dirty. If you are easily offended, you won’t find this funny.

Love or hate the script, everyone can appreciate how much work went into director Craig Willis’ production. The snugglable puppets were designed by David Mort and constructed by volunteers. A set very similar to the one that took up the entire Soreng stage at the Hult when the touring production passed through Eugene last winter has been fitted to the little Leebrick.  

Thus, a big show is replicated in a small space, rather than re-imagined for it. The implications of this choice aren’t huge, but it led audience members around me to compare this show with the touring production, which is unfair. Granted, there were some acoustic problems. With a show like Avenue Q, audiences want the voices to fill the very corners of the theater. Although the space-to-vocal-strength ratio wasn’t spot on, microphones would have been overkill.

Every puppet has so mastered its actor that the people fade behind their Muppet-like appendages. Particularly adept at crossing the line between human flesh and colored felt was Shannon AJ Coltrane (Kate Monster); there was one moment where her puppet was turned away from the audience and I found myself growing angry, as I wanted to see the expression on that little wad of fabric’s face. Only then did I recollect that its expression wasn’t going to change, because its forehead is probably reinforced with cardboard.

Colin Gray, his arms deep in fur with internet porn pervert Trekkie Monster as well as Nicky-the-unkempt-roommate, makes a triumphant debut at Lord Leebrick. Tatianna Young is solidly Gary Coleman-esque, James Tabor delights as uptight Rod, Sarah Ruggles is appropriately vampy as Lucy The Slut, and Alina Ishizaki creates a Mrs. Thistletwat worthy of her name. The appealing cast is thoughtfully rounded out by actual human beings Jay Hash (Brian) and Jaine Huenergard (Christmas Eve).  

Avenue Q is a play to be proud of, and proud they were. Willis beamed as he opened the show, praising his cast as the best talent in town and confidently stating Leebrick plans to extend the run, as tickets are flying out of the box office. Where else are you going to embrace the not-so-A-okay? Time to take a walk on the seedy side of Sesame Street.

Avenue Q plays at the Lord Leebrick Theatre Sept. 16-Oct. 8.