Puppet Up! Uncensored goes LIVE in Australia…
Graphic porn, scatology, violence, dementia and drug use are not totally new to puppetry – Team America: World Police, Being John Malkovich, Meet the Feebles, even Q-Tip’s sex ed on The Chappelle Show helped to revolutionize and scandalize the secret lives of our childhood heroes – just as these darker and extreme aspects reinstilled, for many, a craving for the wisdom of all things fluffy, foamy, wired, spangled or just plain odd.
Puppet Up! have just played the first shows of the Jim Henson Company’s current Australian tour for the Sydney & Melbourne Comedy Festivals and positively went beyond shock value. It is hard to doubt the claim that each show is completely different, given that it was so completely driven by the pleas and suggestions yelled by the packed theatre. Even briefly jetlagged moments were seized upon. One duo became a solo as a ferret parachuted out of Ireland (trust me), and a word-association game became so deep in meat, peat and toilet seats that characters resorted to hysterical self-abuse.
It’s a credit to every single player, and their hundredish puppet ensemble, that 3 days after a 2 million hour flight to Australia they could generate, sustain, and even outrun tonight’s 80 minute performance. If politicians could ad lib and improvise with one-tenth of the cohesion, creativity, and conviction that these wonderful freaks channelled, we’d probably believe and support our governments. Yes, they were that good. Many of those same ‘public servants’ will no doubt get dishonourable mentions on stage in the coming weeks, as the puppets & their handlers get culturally acclimatized to orstraylya’s foinest. As it was tonight, they barely resisted the suggestion of George Bush when asking for a fictitious character.
Defying genre – mashing video, live soundtracking, stand-up, storytelling, intense physicality, puppets and song together – and inspiredly mixing these ingredients would, in its own right, be enough to create noteworthiness. But Puppet Up! raised the bar, combining chaotic innovation with giant talent. The cast of 10, with credits ranging from Sesame Street, Farscape, and Seinfeld, to The Mikado (seriously), all starred equally. Even when Brian Henson was hurled forward as ‘the greatest puppeteer in the world’, within seconds we were again watching an autonomous collective in full flow.
Director, carrot-wrangler, and MC ballisticiozo, Patrick Bristow, later described how more than 60 improv techniques and situations are regularly used to keep the cast challenging themselves and the audience, but only 15 can squeeze into each show. With a variety of these devices, they delivered a genuinely rare brilliance which will stay in the memory for a lifetime, even though you’ve laughed so hard you can’t remember a single f#%$ing punchline.
Suffice to say, the spontaneous hiphop fairytale of sodomy with a carrot, the sociopathic armadillo social worker, Samuel L Jackson ironing with a caveman, and the rock opera ‘To Love a Jew’ will live in the memory like Heather Mills won’t.
There is a striking humility to what this troupe do – directed by strangers to create endlessly textured moments that only exist once. After the show and during a brief respite from signing autographs and talking comfortably with anyone who approached them, some of the cast were genuinely curious to find out from people still trickling away from the after-show hot dogs (bad choice, theatre managers) whether the show had been okay. It was as if perhaps we might have conspired beforehand to laugh, cheer, yell, shout over each other and scream in delight beforehand – just to trick them. The challenge of reading, connecting with, and sincerely caring about a new audience every night must be daunting, but this conclusion is purely logical. There was little if anything to suggest the effort they must have put into tonight’s performance. Memorizing dialogue might be hard, but machine-gunning every thought on the spot……
Tyler, the (unfortunately) tallest and most, um, voluminous of the crew worked the audience without even a word as someone challenged a trio he rocked out with to tell the story of their ambitions to become the fattest man in the world. He’s tiny compared to the laughs he pulled, also totally owning the stage with an Irish monster that was, well, monstrously Irish.
If anybody claimed a spotlight slightly brighter than their peers through their frantically paced appearances, it might have been Victor Yerrid, of Greg the Bunny infamy. Whatever line may not have been already crossed in terms of puppet-permissibility, he showed a readiness to dance all over it. The flipside, if names are being named, is that Julianne Buescher is a formidable talent with a profound ability to dominate through seamless, wickedly funny, and very distinct vocal personae while attaining human near-invisbility on stage. Allan Trautman also owned the moments he created, with an outrageously smooth but generous confidence that I think stage actors call ‘it’. Sesame Street’s Leslie Carrara-Rudolph was the new member of the crew. She seemed the most self-conscious in her early stage-navigation, but when she first gave voice to a character – think helium meets Ella Fitzgerald – we and all seated around us oozed ‘whoa……’. So too when she sang, powerfully for a human and far moreso for a vulture.
And of course we were all briefly jealous when random spectators became guest stars – pulled up on stage for pole-dancing auditions, puppetry crash-courses and alien interrogation. The simple recommendation is – just go. If you’re within 6 hours of Melbourne or Sydney, or if Puppet Up! come to your country, just get there. It’s the only way you’ll see anything like this, because there really is nothing like it. Whatever the flavour, unrestrained virtuosity can’t be beat, and this show has it in spades.