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Like the Muppets, but unmuzzled: Kermit’s talented cousins free to be filthy

‘STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG’

When: Tuesday through June 17

Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe

Tickets: $35-$87

Info: (800) 775-2000;
ticketmaster.com

Updated: July 11, 2012 6:04AM



Few things in life are certain, but this is: You’ll never hear the Muppets swear. Ditto for speaking in scatological terms or employing sexual double entendres or saying/doing anything else of an “adult” nature.

Sadly, then, you’ll never catch Fozzie Bear doing Lenny Bruce material. You’ll never hear Miss Piggy cussing out Kermit.

That’s not to say it’s all G-rated.

When late Muppet co-creator Jim Henson was alive, he and puppeteer Frank Oz amused themselves and crew members by ad-libbing during rehearsals and between takes on TV and film shoots.

“I can’t be specific, but I can tell you that Frank has a naughty sense of humor,” Henson’s son Brian said during a recent visit to Chicago. “My dad had a really naughty sense of humor. So they were goofing around when they knew the cameras weren’t rolling.”

That’s how emotionally realistic characters were and still are born.

“When you watch Miss Piggy and Kermit and Fozzie and Gonzo and all of them, they’re very deep characters and you get the sense that they’re very deep,” Brian said. “And part of the way you develop that is by messing around in an adult way.”

On film and stage, of course, it’s a different story; they’re censored and family-friendly.

Then there’s “Stuffed and Unstrung,” an adult-themed, puppet-starring comedy and musical extravaganza from Henson Alternative. Born almost by accident in 2005, “Stuffed” (under another title) debuted publicly the next year and opens locally Tuesday for a short run during the TBS Just for Laughs Chicago comedy festival.

“It has allowed us to do a show that is something we used to do for ourselves and that he always did for himself,” Brian said of “Stuffed” and his father, whose lanky frame and prominent proboscis he shares. “So in a lot of ways, it’s just wonderful to be able to put it out there. And, of course, there wasn’t really an opportunity to do that when [Jim] was alive — to even think about doing something R-rated in our style of puppetry. But I think if he saw [this show] he would think it was absolutely hysterical.”

Featuring a gaggle of 90 expensive and carefully maintained puppets dubbed “Miskreants” (only a fraction of which are used in any given performance), six rotating improviser-puppeteers (of 20 or so on staff), music, a puppet wrangler and a host (Patrick Bristow), “Stuffed” is largely composed of set musical numbers and improvised comedic scenes created by riffing on audience suggestions. Sometimes those suggestions are, as Brian might put it, “naughty.” Sometimes they’re not.

“We’ve had shows with a great response, standing ovation at the end,” Bristow said. “And I meet somebody after the show and they say, ‘This one wasn’t as dirty as I thought it was going to be’ — almost disappointed. And I’m like, well, the audience was giving us different types of suggestions and we’re feeling the vibe in the room. We don’t intentionally set out and go, ‘We’re going to say tw-- as much as we can in this show,’ but it happens if it’s organic and it’s where the room and the audience and that moment want it to go. We don’t stop ourselves.”

Perhaps most intriguingly, while their hollowed-out playmates appear on the ends of arms and huge video screens, Brian and his cohorts work in full view of the audience. No blocking, no stopping. And if things go awry, no hiding.

Discomfort, however, must be masked. And there’s plenty of discomfort.

In a show that flows continuously for nearly 90 minutes, manipulating the puppets is more physically taxing than usual.

Comparing the “Stuffed” puppeteers to “world-class gymnasts,” Peggy Etra recalled her excitement upon being asked to join the company. Her initial giddiness was somewhat tempered by reality.

“The minute that you’re in a scene and you’re holding a puppet up and the scene keeps going and you’re thinking, ‘My arm is going to fall off,’ and the scene’s not ending and you can’t drop out of the scene, then suddenly you realize the strength and endurance [required], just the physical-ness of it,” she said.

So how do they build up such impressive endurance? Weight lifting? Steroids?

“I’m naturally very masculine,” puppeteer Victor Yerrid interjected.

His mates laughed.

“On his right side,” Brian clarified.

As the industry saying goes, “Right arm steel, left arm veal.”

But puppeteering, as Brian sees it, is merely the technical side of things. Improvising employs an entirely different and complementary set of skills — the more “freewheeling, creative ones.”

“It’s almost like you’re working two muscles in your brain simultaneously. And some people feel like because we’re so engaged in the technical aspect of the puppetry, it’s actually liberating our improvising skills.”

An alum of L.A.’s famed Groundlings improv troupe, Bristow deals with that end of things, keeping an ear and eye out for candidates who might have what it takes to join the Jim Henson Co.’s award-winning team.

Although aspirants send flowers, resumes, demo DVDs and online video links in the hopes of landing a slot, auditions are limited and membership in this elite squad is typically by invitation only. Nowadays, Brian said, “Stuffed and Unstrung” training is the surest way to become a full-fledged Henson performer.

Really, though, he never intended to create a new Henson boot camp, let alone a whole new show, by combining improv and puppeteering; doing so was simply a way to “bring the comedic skills of the puppeteers up a notch.”

Whether crowds in Chicago, arguably the world capital of improv, will judge them more harshly than most remains to be seen.

“The great thing is that we’re basically the best improvisers ever,” Yerrid said. “So pretty much anybody who comes to see it is going to be floored by how amazing and flawless every scene is.”

He was kidding, folks. Get used to it.



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