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“Stuffed and Unstrung” recaptures the chaotic comic energy of the classic “Muppet Show”

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“Stuffed and Unstrung” recaptures the chaotic comic energy of the classic “Muppet Show”

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This past Sunday was the 20th anniversary of Jim Henson’s passing. And if you look around the Web, you’ll find a number of articles out there that talk about all the great TV shows & movies we missed out on because this gentle genius passed away at the far-too-young age of 53.

But the part of Jim’s story that most people seem to overlook these days is how Henson’s children are honoring – more importantly, furthering -- his legacy. Whether it’s Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams (which further her father’s efforts to find exciting new ways to put puppets on film) or Cheryl Henson’s work with The Jim Henson Foundation (which promotes the art of puppetry in the United States through the awarding of grants to individualartists & theater companies).

Jim Henson surrounded by the many puppets he created including Kermit and Miss Piggy
Copyright The Jim Henson Legacy. All Rights Reserved

But of all of Jim’s kids, the one who’s doing the most right now to honor his legacy (because – let’s remember – one of the messages that Henson struggled mightily to get across through movies like “The Dark Crystal” & “Labyrinth” as well as TV shows like "The Storyteller" and "Greek Myths" was that puppets aren’t just for kids) is Brian. Especially through WestBeth Entertainment / Henson Alternative’s off-Broadway stage show, “Stuffed and Unstrung.”

Now you have to understand that – back in the early 1970s – Jim had dreams of staging a Broadway show. In fact, if you can catch the “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” exhibit (which is on display at the National Heritage Museum now through June 27th), you can actually see some of the concept paintings & sketches that Henson put together for an elaborate show that he hoped to stage one day at Lincoln Center.

The cast of Stuffed and Unstrung
The cast of "Stuffed and Unstrung." Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Copyright 2010 The Jim Henson Company. All Rights Reserved

Now the Union Square Theatre isn’t exactly Lincoln Center. Truth be told, this historic structure on 17th Street used to house Tammany Hall. Which was where the infamous Boss Tweed – who ran New York’s political machine around the time of the Civil War – is said to have fleeced the city out of $75  - $200 million.

These days, there’s still plenty of fleece & tweed to be found at Tammany Hall … er … the Union Square Theatre. But this time around, it’s being used to make up much of the 80 Henson puppets that you’ll see onstage during “Stuffed and Unstrung.”

Stuffed and Unstrung producer Brian Henson
"Stuffed and Unstrung" producer Brian Henson. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Copyright 2010 The Jim Henson Company. All Rights Reserved

Now as to how to describe this show: Well, there are moments that are clearly meant to pay tribute to Jim Henson’s creative legacy. Live recreations of classic sketches that he, Jane Henson and Frank Oz performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or “The Tonight Show with Jack Paar.” Likewise there are routines where Brian is trying to point out where puppetry may be headed in the future. Like when the stage crew rolls out the CG-driven Henson Performance Capture System.Or – better yet – the second act’s opening number. Where – through ingenious use of a multi-layer video loop – Barry the Usher performs this elaborate tap dance routine with his four brothers who look exactly like him.

But at its heart-of-hearts, “Stuffed and Unstrung” is an evening of improvisational theater. Where this rotating cast of puppeteers sink or swim depending on the suggestions that come out of the audience. And on the evening that Nancy and I dropped by the Union Square Theatre, things definitely got a little blue. Like when they performed this brilliant parody of the titlesequence from a “James Bond” film. With Adventurers Club veteran Leslie Carrara-Rudolph (who’s probably best known these days as the talented puppeteer who’s behind Sesame Street’s latest break-out character, Abby Cadabby ) doing her best Shirley Bassey impression as she belted out …

The Stuffed and Unstrung create hysterical performances with hotdog puppets
The cast of "Stuffed and Unstrung." Photo by Carol Rosegg.
2010 The Jim Henson Company. All Rights Reserved

Well, this is where reviewing “Stuffed and Unstrung” gets kind of challenging. Given that JHM is a somewhat family-friendly site and this WestBeth Entertainment / Henson Alternative production is a decidedly “adults only” puppet show. So let’s just say the title of the song that Leslie was improvising was a sexually transmitted disease. More importantly, that the name of the villain who was supposed to be tormenting James Bond in the film that Ms.Carrara-Rudolph was warbling about was yet another sexually transmitted disease.

Which – I know – makes “Stuffed and Unstrung” sound like a somewhat bizarre evening of theater. But please don’t be thrown off by the live-and-uncensored aspect of this Henson Alternative show. For when these puppeteers really hit their stride (like the slide show routine that we saw them throw together on the fly. Where a long-married couple fromMinneapolis shared all of the slides that they took during their fun-filled submarine voyage to North Korea), things can quickly get side-splittingly funny.

Stuffed and Unstrung cast member Patrick Bristow
"Stuffed and Unstrung" director Patrick Bristow. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Copyright 2010 The Jim Henson Company. All Rights Reserved

And to make sure that “Stuffed and Unstrung” moves along as smoothly as it possibly can, Patrick Bristow – the show’s director – also acts as M.C. So it’s Patrick who’s continually chatting with the audience, soliciting suggestions for scenes. And if you happen to wind up with an aisle seat at the Union Square Theatre, be warned: Bristow regularly pulls people up onstage to take part in the festivities.

Long story short, “Stuffed and Unstrung” – with its skillful mix of puppet-based improv and hi-tech savvy (EX: During intermission, audience members are invited to tweet messages to the cast. Which were then posted on the two huge video screens that flank the stage) – has the same sort of chaotic comic energy that made the original “Muppet Show” so much fun to watch.

Michael Oosterom, Julianne Buescher and Tyler Bunch performing in "Stuffed and Unstrung"
(L to R) Michael Oosterom, Julianne Buescher and Tyler Bunch.
Photo by Carol Rosegg. Copyright 2010 The Jim Henson Company. All Rights Reserved

So if you’re headed to NYC this summer and want to see how Brian Henson is furthering his father’s legacy with this wildly funny stage show, be sure and swing on by the Union SquareTheatre and catch a performance of “Stuffed and Unstrung.”

“Stuffed and Unstrung” continues at the Union Square Theater, 100 East 17th Street, Manhattan. For further information on this live, uncensored “adults only” puppet show, please click on this link.

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