Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Picaresque Puppetry

Picaresque Puppetry

By Tom Wachunas

    Remember Bert, Ernie, and Cookie Monster? Imagine each one married, raising children who were happy, hopeful, and secure in their beloved Sesame Street neighborhood. Then imagine the frustrations of those children as 20-somethings on their own and who, encountering a world terribly different from the one they envisioned as kids, find themselves destitute and lonely on a far-flung, shabby street in New York City.  What’s this ‘lost generation’ to do? To paraphrase a song from Avenue Q, the Broadway musical that premiered in 2003 (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty), it sucks to be them.

    Most of the characters are Muppet-styled rod puppets, with their human operators always clearly visible with them on stage. For this production by Canton’s Players Guild Theatre, Steve Parsons not only conducts the sparkling six-piece, off-stage orchestra, but also directed the amazingly gifted cast in a comical romp that starts in frolicsome overdrive (choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers) and rarely slows down. The intimacy of the Guild’s arena theater allows the audience to admire at close range the cast members’ delightful abilities to let their puppets be their syncopated, empathetic partners in expressivity.  

    So who are these partners? The affable Princeton (Matthew Heppe) is a recent college graduate ardently seeking his purpose in life, and conflicted about his budding relationship with Kate Monster (Abigail Riley), equally conflicted as she dreams of founding “Monstersori” – a special school for monsters only. The chemistry between Heppe and Riley is quite marvelous – a piquant blend of vulnerability and youthful hope.

    Additionally there’s Rod (Vincent Sisely), a tightly-wound banker and closeted gay, constantly at odds with his straight, lazy roommate, Nicky (Stephen Berg). The hermitic, strangely endearing, and porno-addicted Trekkie Monster (Adam Cerrezuela) lives upstairs. Lucy the Slut (Sarah Marie Young) is a sultry and intrusive temptress in the style of Mae West at her most lascivious. Then there are the relentless Bad Idea Bears (Craig Joseph and Alexis Long), mischievous critters who live up to their name by implanting pernicious impulses in their vulnerable victims. Joseph’s frenetic facial and vocal contortions constitute a gut-splitting performance unto itself. 

    Three actually human characters round out the Avenue Q tenants: Brian (Brian O. Jackson), an unemployed would-be comedian; his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Mary Sheridan), a therapist looking for clients; and the apartment building superintendent, ex-child star Gary Coleman (Tiffeny Brown).   

    Among the witty and/or wickedly cynical tunes (such as Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, and The Internet is for Porn)  that pepper this gluttonously funny feast of a show, none seems more illustrative of its overall aesthetic than There’s a Fine, Fine Line. Riley’s Kate Monster leads one of the evening’s more  poignant and anxiety-filled scenes at the end of Act I when she sings, with her astonishingly sweet and crystalline tonality, “There's a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend; There's a fine, fine line between reality and pretend…”  Later in Act II, Mary Sheridan’s Christmas Eve, responding to Kate Monster’s frustration with Princeton’s fear of commitment, provides a hilarious quasi-counterpoint when she strides about the stage like a sarcastic opera diva, intoning The More You Ruv Someone (the more you want to kill them).

   That said, while fine lines can require careful walking, this show crosses several with cavalier if not disturbing ease - lines between compelling satire and insipid parody, between the venerable and the vulgar. Speaking of the latter, satire or not, and despite the paroxysms of laughter elicited from the house, did we really need to see the ribald enactment of Kate and Princeton’s one-night stand? Fornicating puppets…seriously?  

    After a while, the “off-color” humor gets to be just that. Call it a raucous monotone, which tends to overshadow any truly dramatic authenticity in those coming-of-age moments late in the show when these angst-riddled neighbors manage to find sustainable resolutions to their respective situations. Sure, there are a few references to Jesus and selfless service to others, but they come off a little bit like disingenuous afterthoughts amid so much existential insouciance. Like whistling in the dark. But I think the fault, should you perceive it as such, lies in the writing, not the performing.

    In the end, I ended up caring about these characters if only because, 13 years after their inception, they still reflect the flaws and wounds of a culture navigating life without a steady moral compass. Belly laughs aside, I want that culture to experience not just the cautionary jubilance voiced in the show’s closing number, Only For Now, but more importantly, an unequivocal surrender to a Divinely appointed forever.

   Avenue Q, at the Players Guild Theatre (in the W.G. Fry Theatre) runs  through Sunday March 13, 2016 / Friday and Saturday performances at 8:00pm, Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets: $26.00 for adults, and $23.00 for seniors.  Tickets may be purchased online 24 hours a day at  or in person at the Players Guild Box Office, located in the Great Court of the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave N. By phone:  330-453-7617.  Please note, due to adult content this production is intended for mature audiences only.

   PHOTOS (rehearsal shots), courtesy Michael Lawrence Akers/ Players Guild Theatre - (from top):  #1. The cast of the Players Guild Theatre's "Avenue Q" is (front, left to right) Tiffeny Brown, Craig Joseph, Alexis Long, Brian Jackson and Mary Sheridan, and (back) Adam Cerrezulea, Sarah Marie Young, Matthew Heppe, Abigail Riley, Stephen Berg and Vince Sisley. / #2. (l. to r.) Matthew Heppe, Abigail Riley, Sarah Marie Young / #3. (l. to r.) Vincent Sisely, Alexis Long, Stephen Berg

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