Some of Jim Henson’s empire of puppet projects belongs now to Disney. Some belongs to an outfit that does the puppets on PBS’s “Sesame Street” program. There may be other business overlords. The Jim Henson Company has Brian Henson as its chairman. He is also one of the creators of a live-performing unit called Henson Alternative. That outfit entertained the crowd at K-State’s McCain Auditorium last Sunday night.
The other creator is Patrick Bristow, who hosted the Henson Alternative show, “Stuffed and Unstrung.” Like a majority of the six puppeteers he deployed that evening, Bristow is an alumni of the improvisational comedy company The Groundlings.
“Stuffed and Unstrung” was improv comedy, complete with occasional musical business (accompanied by Dan Ring on electronic keyboards), audience suggestions, audience participation, hastily selected props (in the form of puppets), and groups of performers drawn from a bank of puppeteers who sat on-stage during the performance.
The Sunday night show was hexed from the start by technical troubles which seemed to influence the attitudes of the performers more than they did actually distract the audience. Bristow couldn’t find his microphone at the very beginning of the show. Then a slide projector that figured in an early skit didn’t work. Then a complicated animation control system gave some trouble.
Nevertheless we all soldiered on, and there were some amusing passages in the show. For example, in one segment a young couple from the audience were brought up onto the stage. Meredith was animated. Travis was relaxed. The company “re-created” their first date, and the couple pushed buttons to operate a whistle when the recreation was like their actual experience and a raspberry blower when it was not.
There were, as Bristow pointed out early on, two shows on stage. One was the one with puppets, The black-clad puppet manipulators held their felt characters up (“Puppet up!”) into the view of a central camera, images from which were shown in monitor screens and on two large screens along the back of the set.
So we could watch the puppets, and watching them on screen gave one a better notion of what the puppeteers intended. Or one could watch the on-stage work, the actual humans holding up the puppets, staring at the monitors, and making the voices for the fanciful animal, alien, stock human, or relatively abstract puppet characters.
I found myself looking at the live action, in part because it didn’t seem right to go to a live show and watch TV. Perhaps my focus made me more aware of what terrific voice actors the puppeteers were. They had the energy and attitude one associates with Henson’s entertainments, and the voices were frequently recognizable, perhaps from Henson movies or “Sesame Street” or “The Muppet Show.”
Among the nearly twenty brief comedy bits were Henson ones from the fifties and sixties, recreated; the opening theme, complete with visuals, of the new James Bond movie “Pull the G String” with villain Mr. Thong; a visit to a therapy group for terrorists; a scene from Shakespeare; and a piece mixing live-action with previously recorded action showing multiples of the same puppet, a sort of visual echoplex skit. Perhaps because of the advertising asserting that this would be an “adult” show, many of the audience suggestions (and many of the close-out laugh lines) were references to biologic functions.
But that didn’t seem to make the professionally performed show seem less Henson-like.