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Monday, August 22, 2011

Brian Henson's Stuffed and Unstrung: The Funny, Dirty Improv Puppet Show That's Absolutely Not Muppet-Related

Posted By on Mon, Aug 22, 2011 at 4:00 PM

click to enlarge CAROL ROSEGG
  • Carol Rosegg

Stuffed and Unstrung

Through August 27 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary, S.F.

Improv comedy, of course, is all about the now. But it's no insult to say that the most arresting moments of Stuffed and Unstrung's make-it-up-as-they-go R-rated puppet extravaganza were conceived fifty years ago. Twice during the 100 minute show, Brian Henson -- yes, of those Hensons -- and his not-exactly Muppeteer improvisers laid off the seat-of-the-pants jokes and games to stage stirring recreations of bits Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked out in the fifties and sixties.

It's a post-Muppet Henson paying tribute to a pre-Muppet Henson, and it's wonderful. The two looking-back performances Brian Henson and company take on are funny, absurdist, and somewhat dark musical pieces that each build gently but pay off hugely. Recordings of Oz and Jim Henson's variety show performances turn up on YouTube, sometimes, but even if you haven't seen the originals these recreations should hit some nostalgic sweet spot, especially as they follow the four cardinal rules of prime Muppetry:

1. They're funny.

2. They're weird.

3. They're good hearted yet still anarchic.

4. They take place on the top of a wall.

Here's video someone snagged this week of Brian Henson doing my favorite of these at the D23 Disney event this week, when Jim Henson was inducted as a "Disney Legend," which, really, an honor this about the 500th down on the list of Things Hensons Have to be Proud Of.

There's a risk, though, in so persuasively reminding audiences of Jim Henson's for-the-ages inventiveness, especially as the on-the-fly inventiveness of short-form improv is by design the opposite of timeless. That's what the rest of the show is: short-form improv games played by ace puppeteers with some fifty Muppet-like characters to choose from.

As short-form improv goes, Stuffed and Unstrung is first rate. The improvisers know how to milk each idea for all its worth, and the cast reels through premises and voices with remarkable skill and confidence. Host (and co-director) Patrick Bristow is excellent at hustling things along, cutting off scenes at just the right moment, and chucking out the stalest audience suggestions -- although the night I caught the show, he let "Jerry Springer" through, which inspired a scene that started with a family brawling and then had nowhere to go from there.

The cast, a mix of puppet-folk and Groundlings-types, is suitably quickwitted, with Colleen Smith an impressive standout. She boasts sharp comic ideas, killer phrasing, and the skill to whet silliness into satire. Plus, her delivery is often blase, even amusingly dopey -- she can sound like that big-lipped lady Muppet who plays guitar for Dr. Teeth.

But the great pleasure of the evening is the not-quite Muppet madness. All the puppetry is handled in the signature Henson style: felt puppet faces held way up over the puppeteers' heads. Arms and the occasional leg are manipulated by rods. The ensemble plays toward an HD camera, which rewards audiences with something like two simultaneous shows -- first, the improv puppet show, expertly framed for the TVs and roiling with furry rambunctiousness. In a gently dirty parody of James Bond title sequences, Henson's crew packed the frame with so much inventive ridiculousness that -- for a few moments -- the show truly felt like the best of the Muppets.

Then there's the how-they-do-it show, which fascinates even when the improv comedy flags. The joy of voice and felt somehow cohering into character is, all these decades later, undiminished.

Incidentally, the ads for Stuffed & Unstrung seem to promise a much filthier show than the troupe actually delivers. I've heard some carping that this tkeep-the-kids-away show is somehow un-Henson, an opinion that I guess doesn't take into account Jim Henson's collaborations with Saturday Night Live, Frank Oz's impressively foul mouth, or that creepy bike-ride in The Great Muppet Caper.

Simply put: Stuffed & Unstrung honors Jim Henson's achievement, and it will make you laugh.

Hey, you could do worse than following Alan Scherstuhl at @studiesincrap or SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog at @ExhibitionistSF on the Twitter thing.

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Alan Scherstuhl

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