Real Life with Puppets: ‘Avenue Q’ at Triangle Productions

Photo by David Kinder.
Photo by David Kinder.

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Like most humanities graduates, Princeton has no idea what to do with his life after college.

Unlike the rest of us, however, he is a puppet, who sings openly about his confusion in the lovely, heartfelt number, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” that introduces him as the musical’s protagonist.

His short term answer is to move to Avenue Q street and make a fitful stab at adult life.

The play, by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, portrays the titular street as an untrendy urban block where former child star Gary Coleman is a building superintendent. Monsters, like female lead Kate and porn enthusiast Trekkie, are furry puppet minorities, and various other puppets and humans are going about modest lives.

Lopez wrote the music for “The Book of Mormon,” and “Avenue Q” shares some of its best qualities – innocence, energy, and an ability to see the ridiculousness of its characters, while preserving a compassion for them.

In the song “Mix Tape,” for instance, Kate Monster (the wonderful Elizabeth Fritsch), reads through the list of songs Princeton (a charming Matthew Brown) has burned to a CD to determine whether he’s a friend, or something more.

Fritsch is perfect for the part, guileless and emotive in a way that’s playful, but never showy. Likewise, Brown hits the right notes, capturing Princeton’s timidity and cluelessness, while suggesting a goofy mischievousness around the edges.

The inclusion of both puppeteers and puppets – the actors wears the puppets on one hand, and control an arm with a stick held in the other – is likely the show’s most clever stroke. Perfect for our multitasking world, it gives the audience double the input at all moments. Likewise, it both distances the audience, playfully underscoring the absurdity, and draws it in, by allowing it to connect with the performers.

The play is full of clever ideas, such as the Bad Idea Bears – day glo colored puppets who spring out of nowhere to encourage depressed people to drink beer, or folks on a first date to get wasted and have sex, all with an irrepressible glee.

Ensemble members Jeremey Garfinkel and Katey Bridge are great in these parts, conveying a manic, yet curiously innocent energy.

When the play sticks to its character’s hearts and dreams, it’s very lovely. Its second train of thought, however, is a retrogressive political outlook, which can be tedious and offensive.

It’s the sort of show that includes characters of all races singing a song called “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist,” without examining how that racism might affect the characters differently. It also features an Asian character, Christmas Eve (the excellent Sarah Kim), who, despite having two Master’s degrees, can not manage one grammatically correct sentence.

The degree to which this sort of stuff bothers you, and it pops up quite a bit, is the degree to which you’ll likely be annoyed by the play.

“Avenue Q” has a charming gay subplot, involving Rod (Jeremy Garfinkel again), a closeted Republican investment banking puppet. Though he pines secretly for his straight best friend Nicky (the hilarious James Sharinghousen), Rod denies to everyone his secret until late in the show.

As the mooching, blunt Nicky, and the oversexed, somewhat gross Trekkie Monster, Sharinghousen represents the show’s id.

Giant, furry, gruff, and unashamed, Trekkie Monster loves porn and tears out of a burlesque show to masturbate. Sharinghousen imbues him, and Nicky with an anarchic glee that works perfectly.

Salim Sundiata Sanchez is quite good as Gary Coleman, but one has to wonder why Gary Coleman is a character here. Yes, the play was written around the time of “Being John Malkovich,” when that sort of thing was in vogue, and yes it underscores the theme of the difficult transition we all make from adolescence to adulthood, but to revel in a former star’s downfall, and then have him sing a song titled “Schadenfreude,” isn’t it a little . . . mean?

You can think so and still enjoy the play. You’ll probably just end up identifying quite a bit with Kate Monster, who works with kindergarteners and dreams of opening a special school for little monsters, where they won’t be stigmatized.

Make fun of Gary Coleman? She’d never do that sort of thing.

“Avenue Q” at Triangle Productions through June 29.

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