Puppet play not for kids
MICHAEL C. UPTON
Record Express Correspondent
Elmo (or at least his voice actor) is facing allegations of inappropriate behavior. Cookie Monster now tells kids to eat healthy snacks. A magical fairy has replaced most of the classic characters — an appearance by Oscar the Grouch or The Count is a rarity. Sesame Street has definitely changed and I don’t like it. What does all of this have to do with EPAC’s current production? A lot more than one would think.
“Avenue Q” opened Thursday, May 2 to a packed audience at the Sharadin Bigler Theatre. Director Ed Fernandez welcomed all to a performance of “puppets talking badly and puppets acting badly.” He was right; this puppet-filled musical is definitely not for children.
Tearing a page from the childhood memories of many theatergoers, “Avenue Q” uses the platform established by children’s programming like “Sesame Street” to deliver a heavy, adult tale. Our hero, Princeton, is a recent college graduate as we quickly learn through his song, “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” Princeton has made his way all the way down to Avenue Q — having started at the affluent Avenue A — in search of affordable shelter in the big city. Here he meets a cast of characters who are stuck on the idea their life sucks, literally delivered through the song “It sucks to be me.” Finally meeting the superintendent of the rental buildings, Gary Coleman — yes, the real life character of Gary Coleman, complete with “What ch’you talkin’ ’bout?” jokes — Princeton takes residence on Avenue Q and befriends our heroine, Kate Monster.
Yes, just like “Sesame Street,” “Avenue Q” incorporates both humans and monsters into the reality of the surroundings. Trekkie Monster — no relation to Kate — is a porn hungry beast in the style of Cookie Monster. In the original Broadway musical, Trekkie resembles something from “Where the Wild Things Are,” but at EPAC he takes a more modern form like that of a fuzzy Muno from “Yo Gabba Gabba!”
By the end of the side-splinteringly funny act one, viewers have also met Nicky and Rod, two human puppets who are obviously fashioned after Bert and Ernie; Lucy the Slut, pretty obvious what she represents; Mrs. T, Kate’s boss with and absurdly funny name; and Brian, a regular human with his heart set on a career in comedy and his stereotypically portrayed Asian wife, Christmas Eve.
A great appreciation goes out to all the actors who have turned into puppeteers; that is no easy task. Sean Deffley is the actor behind both Princeton and the closeted Bert, a.k.a. Rod, who is a Republican investment banker. Gary Coleman is portrayed perfectly and comically by Jeremy Patterson. Patterson is making his triumphant debut at EPAC after establishing a wealth of credits in the Harrisburg area. Bob Breen, most recently seen in “Angels in America” at EPAC, returns as a Hawaiian shirt donning and not so funny Brian. His wife, Christmas Eve, is portrayed by Lindsay Levine, a junior at Millersville University making her EPAC premiere. Showing some incredible vocal range, Preston Schreffler took on the role of both Nicky (think Ernie) and Trekkie (try not to think too much).
One of act one’s prize performances is “If you were gay,” sung by Nicky. Preston brings another impressive array of credits from the Harrisburg area to Ephrata for the first time; he has performed in “The Mikado,” “Hamlet,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” and other notable presentations.
Stealing the show was Katelyn Ann Mullen, who ripped the rafters off (figuratively) this “community theater” production of “Avenue Q.” Her performance during the musical numbers “There’s a fine line,” “Mix tape” and “Fantasies come true” are nothing short of incredible. Her voice is powerful, motivating, telling, all while never going over the top into the realm of unbelievability. Kate Monster rocks! (If you see the show and want to give a special shout out to Mullen, tweet with the hashtag #doyouhearthepuppetssing.)
In “Avenue Q,” sometimes the behind the scenes action is actually right in front of our eyes. Much of this production would not be able to progress without the helping hand of puppeteer Heidi Carletti, who assisted several monsters with their animated delivery. Carletti also appears in one of my favorite scenes as a cardboard box in “Purpose,” which is the ultimate theme to “Avenue Q.” Delivered through a myriad of throwback ideas, “Purpose” sets the plot for the show and delivers a campy, yet genuine, homage to the television of our youth. The show would not be complete without the help of Carletti and fellow puppeteers Brandon Kegerize and Kathleen Harris Brantman — the smallest details are what make the biggest differences sometimes. Carletti and Kegerize also team up with Levine to form the Bad Idea Bears whose antics shook the seats of the theater from audience laughter.
“Avenue Q” forces actors to strike a delicate balance between being on stage and hiding behind a puppet. It is more than just a puppet show and the actors flowed incredibly well with their animated counterparts. The musical recalls many references from children’s television and incorporates some of those aspects through the use of recently installed flat screen televisions mounted in the rigging of the Sharadin Bigler Theatre. It’s a cute addition, but I couldn’t help fixate on their small size against the expansiveness of the stage. In some seats the screens are almost blocked entirely by mounted lighting. I wonder if this is a result of a small, community theater budget or an artistic choice by the director? Whichever, the size of the screen did not detract too much from the entirety of the show.
If not offended by the sight of puppets in the throes of passion, or language a little unsavory, I would say EPAC’s production of “Avenue Q” is a must see for any fan of hilarity, morality, or good old debauchery — plus some great musical theater.