Anxiety via puppet

Happy times on Avenue Q
Happy times on Avenue Q // Tory Burnside Clapp

On a set reminiscent of a grungy Sesame Street, a green puppet named Princeton (Christian Probst ’16) sang about a question that has plagued many at our bastion of liberal arts education: “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” Such was the charm of “Avenue Q” — while performers handled colorful puppets against a backdrop of streamers and empty beer bottles, they discussed subjects that were at once compelling and familiar, candidly presenting an exploration of race and sexuality through a comical cast of misfits.

The characters live in an apartment building called Avenue Q, which represents your run-of-the-mill low-cost housing complex in New York City, complete with a disillusioned superintendent — formerly the child star Gary Coleman (Dominic Lounds ’15) — and a resident pervert, Trekkie Monster (Connor Lounsbury ’14). Princeton’s story will strike a particular chord among Yalies, many of whom fear facing the same fate as the young puppet unemployed upon college graduation and lost in the city in search of an elusive sense of “purpose.”

The most impressive element of the performance is its elaborate stagecraft, choreographed to the tee by director Ian Miller ’15. The puppets allowed for a large range of characters to be played by a small set of actors, who received professional puppeteer training to prepare for their roles. Chris Camp ’16 was strong in his interpretation of Rod, a sharp-pitched, closeted male puppet whose moment of glory arrives not when he ultimately comes out, but when he delivers a stubborn and shrill rendition of the piece “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada.”

Miller’s chosen format of having puppets on stage alongside the actors who are voicing and controlling them made for a complicated viewing experience. While the actors demonstrated a deft control in their maneuvring, audience members may still find it difficult to concentrate on the puppets rather than on the facial expressions of the performers themselves. Nevertheless, the puppets provided ample opportunities for innovative theater, such as one scene in which a cardboard box chorus, not unlike Hercules’ five muses, sang and danced around Princeton during one of his many existential crises.

Of course, “Avenue Q” is not the kind of puppet show that you would see at your community daycare center. The Yale Drama Coalition’s website cautions that the musical is intended for mature audiences, a disclaimer that proves necessary during a boisterous sex scene between Princeton and his purple paramour, Kate Monster (Anna Miller ’14). The dynamic liaison also showcased a creative, bawdy flair: the two puppets covered all the bases … and then some. Commitment, as they informed the audience, is nothing more than a mingling of the words “come” and “mitment.”

On the human side, Timmy Pham ’13 stole the spotlight as a sassy Japanese therapist mysteriously named Christmas Eve. A holder of “two Master’s degrees” and zero paying clients, Christmas Eve played the part of the ever-willing confidante, spewing humorous aphorisms in between sharp-tongued admonitions. Pham’s lively scolding served as an ideal complement to the laid-back demeanor of Eve’s fiancé, a failed comedian (Jake van Leer ‘15).

Amid all the sexual and political humor, the show presented a few scenes of incredible tenderness and reflection. In a heartbreaking moment for Kate Monster, she sang about the pitfalls of romance, crooning in a cracking voice, “There’s a fine, fine line between love and a waste of time.” In a closing song about the passing of the years, the characters remind their largely college-age audience that we have it pretty good inside the ivory tower — perhaps not forever, but at least “for now.” Within its list of fleeting things, the actors sang about “Sex! Your hair! Dick Levin!”

Unlike failed relationships and doomed trysts, “Avenue Q” promises to be two hours of time well spent.

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