On one hand, it feels sacrilegious to see Jim Henson-style puppets swearing, making out or getting violent onstage in "Stuffed and Unstrung," a touring show from Henson Alternative and WestBeth Entertainment now playing at the Bank of America in Chicago through Sunday, June 17.
But on the other hand, "Stuffed and Unstrung" warns audiences well in advance about its adults-only content and is just reflective of other grown-up puppet entertainments ranging from Broadway's hit musical comedy "Avenue Q" to Comedy Central's "Crank Yankers."
three stars"Stuffed and Unstrung"
Location: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 14; 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 15 and 16; 7 p.m. Sunday, June 17
Running time: About 90 minutes with no intermission
Parking: Nearby pay garages
Rating: For adults only; strong potential for profanity and strong sexuality
So you shouldn't really feel shocked when these very cute and amazingly designed puppets behave very badly. Besides, the puppeteers are only performing what audiences are shouting out in terms of suggested situations, locations and titles for this largely improvised comedy show. So if the show gets too blue for you, blame the audience, not the puppets.
As with any improvised comedy show, the humor varies depending upon what the performers think up on the spot. But everything takes on an extra level of absurdity thanks to the number of animals, aliens or food object puppets who perform to a live-feed camera on two large screens onstage.
On one level you can just watch what's being projected in classic Jim Henson-style puppetry technique. But you also get the bonus of seeing the puppeteers at work and marveling at their mastery of their craft.
This Chicago run of "Stuffed and Unstrung" is particularly special since it features Brian Henson, son of the late great Muppets creator Jim Henson, as one of the members of the talented sextet of puppeteers. (Other great improvisers/puppeteers on opening night included Tyler Bunch, Peggy Etra, Drew Massey, Ted Michaels, Colleen Smith and Victor Yerrid). Henson also uses "Stuffed and Unstrung" to wow audiences with some of the latest puppet technology, which ranges from live and repeat video captures to a virtual computer-generated puppet that interacts on screen with physical puppets.
Emcee and show co-creator Patrick Bristow ("Ellen") helps keep things moving along at a brisk pace, while musical director Willie Etra provides great keyboard accompaniment throughout.
Even though these cute puppets often have filthy mouths and minds, there's still a childlike sense of magic and play that pervades "Stuffed and Unstrung." Seeing these inanimate objects become so convincingly lifelike is a wonder -- even if they make you blush now and then.