‘Avenue Q’ presents the adventures of grown-up Muppets

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - 7:12pm

What happens when Sesame Street grows up? I mean like really grows up — like when you are all of a sudden a young unemployed puppet thrust into the cruel, cruel world of awkward sexual encounters, racism and internet porn? (With little more than a B.A. in English and relentless waves of anxiety about the future.) MUSKET’s “Avenue Q” seeks to explore these tribulations with candor and lightheartedness.

Both director Matt Kunkel, a senior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and actor Josh Knoller, an LSA freshman, spoke of the production as something of a salve in a time of nationwide distress following the presidential election.

“With the whole political climate the way it’s been, we need ... to kind of have an escape from real life,” Kunkel said. He added that the theater is unique in bringing people together, with people from different walks of life all sharing a focus and space that allows them to enter into a different world.

And the world of “Avenue Q” is surreal. The show, a brainchild of Robert Lopez and University of Michigan alum Jeff Marx, premiered on Broadway in 2003 and has since won multiple Tony awards. It has also continued to run Off-Broadway. The musical involves a cast of hand puppets, each controlled by actors who are visible on stage but seem to fade into the background as the plot progresses.

Although puppetry is so often relegated to the likes of childhood innocence, “Avenue Q” is anything but pure — showcasing musical numbers such as “The Internet is for Porn” and muddy discussions of topics like religion and financial strife, all played out through colorful puppets akin to the ones who taught you how to count or not to eat too many cookies. The puppets allow the cast to discuss heavier topics or take certain risks that they might not be able to take if the whole production were solely live action.

The MUSKET cast worked with Rick Lyon, one of the original puppeteers of “Avenue Q,” on perfecting their technique to give the puppets a lifelike quality, essentially, what allows the human behind the puppet to fall away from the narrative.

Due to the adult subject matter and “full puppet nudity,” Kunkel noted that the puppetry allows the script and music to take more risks in the content they discuss.

“If it were just two humans talking on stage like that, it may be considered too inappropriate or too risqué,” he said.  

Knoller, who plays Nicky, referenced comedians such as John Oliver and Trevor Noah, who use satire to shine light on the tense sociopolitical moment to explain the play.

“A lot of the most poignant rhetoric for people who are really upset is from things like that, somewhat raunchy but to the point commentary,” he said. He suggested that “Avenue Q” was in a similar movement, something that amid a funny and light exterior is an astute commentary that toes the line between hyperbole and truth.

Both Knoller and Kunkel noted that the script was especially poignant for a millennial audience, as it focuses on Princeton, a recent grad searching for a job, a home and above all of that, a “purpose.” In this vein, Kunkel highlighted nuggets of wisdom from the show, reassuring his audience, as the “Avenue Q” script says, “It’s okay not to know. It’s okay to not have everything figured out right away.”

Additionally, he tacked on a lyric from the end of the show that seeks to be a salve to the pain, fear and uncertainty present within the hearts of many.

“ ‘Everything in life is only for now.’ ”

NodeBox: 

MUSKET Presents: “Avenue Q”

Power Center

Friday, Nov. 18 and Saturday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 20 at 2 p.m.

 $7 students/ $13 adults