Dirty puppets + improv = hilarity

stuffed 1
Stuffed and Unstrung puppeteers (from left) Colleen Smith, Brian Henson, and Ted Michaels let the Muppets run wild. Below: Michael Oosterom (left) and Tyler Bunch let bunnies do what bunnies do.Photos by Carol Rosegg

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when the Muppets go blue, check out Stuffed and Unstrung, the blush-inducing, laugh-happy puppet improv show from Henson Alternative, the adult arm of the Jim Henson Company.

Six puppeteers, one video camera, two screens and a wall of puppets with a penchant for f-bombs combine for about 100 minutes of comedy bliss – brought to us by SHN. All the usual improv stuff is here – suggestions from the audience (“Prostitution!” seemed to come up a lot at Thursday’s opening-night performance), interactions with willing suckers pulled form their seats (one lucky guy actually got to operate a Muppet on stage – an actual Muppet! Lucky bastard) and all kinds of shiny, happy nastiness.

And the laughs just keep on coming. An old man and a beaver sledding down a hill quickly turns dirty. Three aliens visiting a Castro gay bar quickly turns into an orgy. And a re-creation of a couple’s first date fairly drips with sexual innuendo. Good times.

All the puppets on stage are created by the Henson shop, which makes them Muppets, but these are wacky characters and supporting players from various and sundry Muppet projects from around the globe. There’s no hint of Kermit or Gonzo or Miss Piggy.

But there is, amid the mayhem, some wonderful vintage stuff paying tribute to Jim Henson, Jane Henson and Frank Oz. From the 1950s, we get re-creations of “Java,” the Oz/Henson collaboration involving two Slinky-like wormy things, and we get “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” (performed on tape by a glorious Rosemary Clooney), a sort of cannibalistic love scene.

Stuffed 2

There’s a song called “Puppet Up!” (the previous name for this show) to open the show and introduce us to the way this show is going to work. You can watch the giant video screens if you want to watch the puppet show, or you can watch the puppeteers, with their eyes always on the monitors, work the puppets for the cameras. Both shows are pretty entertaining, but it’s absolutely masterful the way these puppeteers manipulate space to create effects on camera.

Hosted by Patrick Bristow, who, along with Brian Henson (son of Muppet founder Jim Henson), created this show, Stuffed and Unstrung is actually pretty structured for an improv show. There’s are several improvised musical numbers (accompanied by a keyboardist tucked away stage left), a long-form scene in Act 2 and some showing off of the latest “live animation” puppetry technology that is pretty mind blowing.

In truth, the evening really cries out to be 90 minutes with no intermission. Act 2 is pretty thin and is over almost as soon as it starts (with Brian Henson doing a marvelous tap number with an old man usher puppet).

As with any improv show, there’s a risk that scenes will fall flat or contain some dead space. On opening night, the only scene that really tanked was a TV-themed sketch. The audience chose a “Dr. Who”-like show on PBS and Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Performed by hot dog puppets on sticks (conveniently available for sale in the lobby), the scenes revealed that the puppeteers didn’t have much working knowledge of “Dr. Who” and that without a shark puppet, they were adrift on a sea of uninteresting frankfurters.

But the evening as a whole is highly enjoyable and full of belly laughs. Puppeteers don’t get any better than this, so just watching them work is a rewarding experience, but there is a lot of comedy to be had as well. From little titters to full-on, Gerard Depardieu pee-on-the-floor funny, the laughs are constant, and so is the childlike delight with a decidedly adult slant to it.

[bonus interview]
I had the opportunity to chat with Brian Henson and Patrick Bristow about Stuffed and Unstrung for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read it here.

[bonus video]
Watch the first few minutes of Stuffed and Unstrung:

Stuffed and Unstrung continues through Aug. 27 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$65. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.