Strung Out...

Chicago may be famous for its improv comedy scene -- Second City, the comedy training school/performance space has churned out such alumni as Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Dan Castellaneta, John Belushi, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Amy Sedaris, and Steve Carrell -- but I must confess that I'm just not that into it as a genre. I have several friends that are active in the local improv scene, but I am a terrible person, and have never gone to any of their performances.

I have been motivated, under extraordinary circumstances, to check out various improv shows around town (my love for Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility inspired me to check out the Improvised Jane Austen show last summer with my friend, Chaya), and this week, I found myself under the influence of one such rare scenario once again. A couple months back, I was engaged in my customary stalking of the Broadway in Chicago website in search of discounted theater tickets, when I noticed a listing for an upcoming performance entitled, "Stuffed and Unstrung."

Curious, I looked up the show on Google, and to my surprise and delight, found out that it was an improv show using puppets from the Jim Henson Company's Creature Shop. (Though they look like Muppets, Disney bought the rights to the characters of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf, et al and now only they can officially be called "Muppets.") The show is put on by a group called "Henson Alternative," which creates entertainment experiences for an exclusively adult audience. In fact, their website was full of warnings that their show was not appropriate for children.

Suspecting that the show would be the kind of thing Mom would enjoy, I snatched up some tickets for the both of us as a combination Mother's Day/birthday present for her. I was a little concerned about the wisdom of my choice after Mom caught them on the WGN Morning News last week and pronounced them rather unfunny. However, after seeing their regular, not-fit-for-network-television performance tonight, I can safely say that my initial intuition was spot-on.

Both Mom and I really enjoyed the show, in which the puppeteers performed their act in full view of the audience, and a strategically-located camera projected the traditional view of just the puppets onto two large screens. That way, you could appreciate the craft of the puppeteering from two different perspectives. Audience members yelled out suggestions for a series of improv games, and the performers were adept at creating hysterical scenes out of thin air.

At one point, they pulled an audience member onstage, gave him a crash-course in puppetry, and proceeded to build a scene around him. For someone with no experience, the audience member was quick on his feet, and actually contributed to one of the funniest sketches of the night.

I also particularly enjoyed a pair of classic scenes created by Jim Henson himself in the 1950s, that Brian Henson, his son, recreated for the audience. One, "Java," I had seen before, but the other, structured around the song, "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face," was new to me. It featured the disarming, violence-based humor that characterizes Henson's work from that time, and is all the more funny because you don't expect puppets to behave in such a way. I was glad that Brian Henson chose to pay homage to his father's work in that way.

"Stuffed and Unstrung" is currently on tour throughout the U.S. It was playing in Chicago as part of the annual Just For Laughs Comedy Festival sponsored by TBS, through which Justin and I went to see Dimitri Martin and a roster of other stand-up comics last year.  If "Stuffed and Unstrung" makes it to your town, I seriously recommend giving it a chance. If puppetry isn't your thing, perhaps you'll enjoy the irreverent improv comedy. If, like me, improv isn't your favorite, perhaps the puppets will win you over. Either way, give it a chance if you have the opportunity. After all, how often do you get to witness a pug and a goat have a conversation about sex toys?

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