I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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Disclaimer: I got two free tickets due to my recent interview with the Aussie director, Jonathan Biggins.
Amazingly enough, I know less about Avenue Q than it would seem. I’ve taken particular care to avoid watching videos or previews of the show. I’ve seen pics of the puppets before, but didn’t know anything about the storyline outside of: it’s Sesame St for adults. For those who want to hear it, my interview with the director (and some other useful links) can be found here.
I’ll start off with a parental advisory. Please, don’t take your young children to this show. Just because it has puppets does not mean it’s kid friendly. (And for those parents out there wondering why, it has some fairly R-rated bedroom scenes in it) And for those who care: no, there weren’t any puppets on sale as merchandise. Also, there may be a few spoilers ahead! Tiny ones, I promise…
Tonight (4th June) was the Australian premiere. There have been preview nights, but I was invited - along with a lot of well-known people it seems - to come to the premiere. I took my friend Jeany, and we ended up being in the back row of the stalls (tickets were picked up at the door, and I couldn’t choose seating arrangements).
Basically, the show is about Princeton, a recent arts graduate who’s looking for a place to stay. He comes across Avenue Q, moves in, meets some neighbours, and makes friends. That’s an oversimplified plot, but I don’t want to give too much away - and trust me, if I say any more, I will definitely give it all away. This is both a good and a bad thing: the plot is so simple that any decent writing student will see the twists and turns coming; but it’s also a musical, and musicals aren’t supposed to confuse you. Anyone who’s watched Sesame Street in their lives will understand the subtle satire of Trekkie Monster, Nicky, Rod, and the whole How do you get to Sesame Street themed music and video. I did laugh out loud at a couple of the jokes; others left me confused or bored. I guess I’m just too plot-wise, and saw them coming. Honestly, I’m not your average punter, so normal folk will like this show on a story basis more than I did.
Although I have to say all of the Gary Coleman stuff goes over my head. I know who he is, I get the references… I just don’t get why it’s funny. Maybe it’s just me…
For those who come expecting an ‘Australian’ version - ie. accents, Aussie references, etc. - you’d be disappointed. This is straight-down-the-line American. Not that that’s bad, just that you shouldn’t expect an Ocker larrikin popping up in scenes.
The sets are fantastic - very realistic of the outside (and inside) of brick apartments that you’d find in America. I especially loved the pink-coloured clouds on a blue backdrop, it just made the whole thing come to life. If I didn’t have rows of people in front of me, I would have sworn I was outside. There were a number of great little lighting and visual effects that I loved (the ’sky cloth’ in the brick walls), and the ‘pop up’ (really rotating) sets are all used with simplicity and ease. Despite a quite complicated looking set, the actors and techies all used it with no problems - including some very fast puppet changes or exits and entrances. The one quibble I have is that the people in the back rows of the stalls can’t see the top of the video screen, because of it being hidden from sight by the balcony. This is unavoidable, but annoying nonetheless. (For the record, it doesn’t stop you from viewing or understanding the imagery projected, just that you can’t see all of it) ‘Props’ go to the Adelaide company (more info in my interview linked below) who created the set specially for the Aussie tour.
The lighting itself is tough to judge. I felt myself noticing lighting changes quite a bit (I always go by the rule of thumb that lighting is supposed to be subtle and not noticed at all), and those were the less obvious changes - obvious ones include big gobos of red hearts, chases, that sort of thing. I’m not sure if this is just me noticing it because I like lighting design and pay attention to that sort of thing, or if it was really a little off… Either way, I liked the lighting quite a bit, and found that it complemented the sets, costumes and moods of the scenes very well. On a production value score, Avenue Q hits it big with me.
Costumes were great: muted greys worn by the actors, with bright-coloured puppets; your eyes are drawn away from the actors so you can focus on the puppets. But they’re not so boring that you think there hasn’t been any effort put into it.
I will say, I don’t know much about music but I do know that the vocals were fantastic (Michala Banas and Christina O’Neill in particular have great singing voices, although O’Neill dropped her accent more than once during her dialogue), along with the band. And yes, there is a live band. I won’t tell you where they’re located though … Whilst we’re here, Luke Joslin, when playing Nicky: you need to watch your enunciation. Initially, with Nicky’s voice, I couldn’t understand what you were saying.
Anyway, to puppetry: the puppets themselves are all really beautifully made. All of them seem to be an excellent study of the principles of Henson’s designs for the Sesame Street characters. Simple colours, shapes and designs; everything on the puppets was enough to suggest general character, and there wasn’t anything that could have been done without. This to me is the mark of good puppet design. Incidental puppets - I won’t spoil them for you - do appear, and for an average audience member might seem cute or funny, or unexpected. I found them a little boring; perhaps because I know that puppets can appear anywhere and be anything.
But now we get to where my real troubles lie. The manipulation. The problem with a show like Avenue Q - and it is a problem for all of those brilliant, but unemployed puppeteers in Australia… who by the way, don’t get any recognition at all here - is that they use untrained puppeteers. Ok, they hire trained actors, but they don’t have prior experience using puppets. This would not be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the manipulation for the most part wasn’t great.
I must preface before we get into the technicalities of it all, that the general public - indeed those who work in theatre but not within puppetry - will not notice or even care about these technicalities. But to anyone who puppeteers, they will know that these are not just whiny points to be a scathing reviewer, but the difference between having an inanimate object onstage and a ‘live’ puppet character that you can connect with. If you’re a member of the general public just trying to find a review of the show, and don’t care much about the actual puppetry, then you can probably ignore the following comments for the most part. With that in mind:
|A poster of the show. Image by Ben Sutherland.|
Natalie Alexopolous would have to be the weakest link of the bunch: she projects a lot of her character’s actions into her own body (overacting really), and I found that every time I looked at her with one of the Bad Bears (or even when she momentarily puppeteers for one of the other characters), her mouth movements were out of synch with her words. Now I know that this is an extremely difficult thing to do, because it practically requires you to move your hand opposite to how you would expect to; but in particular she was distractingly bad at getting it right. Luckily her role onstage is small.
Second worse, unfortunately, was a lead. Mitchell Butel, who plays both Princeton and Rod, just annoyed the hell out of me. I couldn’t exactly work out why, but Jeany and I had a similar idea: much of the puppet’s eyelines are directed above the stalls. (For non-puppeteers, it means that the puppets tend to look above your head, rather than at you, and makes it difficult to believe the puppet is real. Even a slight millimetre change in angle will affect this believability) This is done probably because they have to work to both the stalls and the balcony audience, which I felt made it hard to connect with the puppets. Butel, I think, was doing this eyeline direction thing much worse than everyone else. In fact, he made it appear as if he had no eyeline at all, and that his hand was just pointing in whatever direction felt natural. He in particular bugged me, and for no reason I can put my finger on other than a general idea that he was not creating a believable puppet character. Overall, his performance - and much of the other problems with the cast’s manipulation - can be summed up as:
The actors putting too much of the character’s movements, expressions and energy into their own bodies and not into the puppet itself. Working with a puppet means treating it as an extension of oneself, not ‘this thing on my hand’, which is what I felt like the cast was doing.
On a brighter note, the only person I could say was definitely not doing this was Michala Banas. Now I’ve never seen her on stage or on TV (I’m aware of who she is, but never watched anything she was in), so I have nothing to compare to. But she was great. Her characterisations, voices, movements, everything about her was good. She not only acted out expressions, etc. herself, but put them into the puppet; almost like she was sort of a muted version of the puppet. (Compared to the rest of the cast, whose puppets were like muted versions of them) She was the only person that I not only didn’t watch - but rather watched her puppets - but enjoyed not watching. She was especially good at playing both her characters - Kate and Lucy the Slut - especially when she did the voices, but someone else was operating one of the puppets for her. She’d make an excellent ventriloquist.
Luke Joslin, as Trekkie Monster, is ten times better than Luke Joslin as Nicky. Somehow Trekkie Monster comes off as funnier or better manipulated.
The rest of the cast were much in the same vein as Butel, only less annoying. For the most part I didn’t pay special attention to them, and found their performances neither here nor there. The acting itself isn’t bad, it’s just that none of it went into the puppets. Jeany said to me afterwards that she didn’t see the point in the puppets - why were they there? I disagree with her to a certain extent, because the show is basically a satire on Sesame Street and without puppets, it makes little sense. But then the manipulation of the puppets was off the mark enough for me to say that if the puppets weren’t there, it wouldn’t have made any difference to the quality of the show. And if Avenue Q isn’t about making puppets come to life, then what is it about, and why do you use them?
To me, an excellent example of what was wrong with the manipulation came at the very start of the show. Mitchell Butel is standing on stage as Princeton, and as soon as he (Princeton) started talking, I watched Butel and not the puppet. It took me about five minutes to convince my eyes to watch the puppet. Now for your average punter who never goes to a puppet show, this is probably normal; they’re not used to watching the puppets, so they watch the actors instead. After a while, you get used to it and begin to watch the puppets. But I’ve been to a number of puppet shows, and if it’s good puppet manipulation, I never start off watching the actor. In fact, what worse way to start a puppetry performance than by having your audience not watch the puppets? (UPDATE: A month later I got to see John Tartaglia, one of the original performers in the first US performance, perform a song from Avenue Q live. It confirmed my suspicions as to the watchability of the puppeteer over the puppet; I had difficulty watching him and found my eyes immediately drawn to the puppet without any force by me)
All of this may sound extremely harsh, but I know from experience that it’s a very fine line between manipulating an object and bringing that object to life. The cast walked this line, but never quite crossed it to the ‘life’ side of it. All of the actors should indeed be commended for doing as well as they did with no experience, and I would add that these comments are more than likely things that experienced puppeteers would pick up and nothing an average person would even notice. But instead of merely being a crowd pleaser, wouldn’t it be better to also get these things right? It actually does improve the quality of the performance, even if these points seem like nitpicking to a non-theatre person.
But the audience was packed, drinks lavished around, and a lot were either friends or supporters. I spotted a number of TV celebrities, Neighbours actors, etc. This, I sense, will have affected the audience reaction a great degree. But I have no doubt that the rest of the audience on future nights will give a standing ovation just as they did tonight. The songs, jokes and plotline is risque and funny enough for people to come and have a good night out.
For me and my friend, we found that tonight was not worthy of a standing ovation. Yes, the songs are great, and yes, the sets are great, and yes, the puppets are great; but it’s just not quite right. Where it falters for me was in the puppet manipulation itself. I walked out of the show thinking, yeah it was good. But the puppetry wasn’t anything special. They didn’t do anything special, and they weren’t manipulated to do anything special - worse, I just couldn’t connect with any of the puppet characters, except the occasional moment from Kate Monster or Trekkie. The highlights of this show for me were really the sets, lighting, puppet design, and Michala Banas.
I feel quite conflicted about Avenue Q. I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone, but at the same time, if this is the sort of show that is needed to get people to stop thinking about puppetry as ‘just for kids’, then maybe it’s worth it. Plus, the show is actually quite good from an inexperienced average punter point of view. So if you want to see something a bit different, and have a laugh, go. If you want to see some awesome puppetry, maybe pick something else. Or wait a while until the cast gets better. UPDATE: I have since read three other reviews that are the complete opposite of mine. They lavish praise on Butel, and barely even notice the flaws of the puppetry. This suggests two things to me: one, that the puppetry really won’t be noticed by the average punter; and two, that more education is required in Australia about what constitutes good puppetry. People can often tell when a musician is singing off key; acting is judged on believability - so why people think that puppetry is any less refined or requiring more than just ‘moving around’ is beyond me. Evidently, we need more mainstream puppetry in Australia, so people can see past the ‘glamour’ of Avenue Q and enjoy the subtlety that should go along with puppetry; and evidently, we also need to educate reviewers too. Even novice puppeteers would be able to spot the obvious flaws within Avenue Q - and some of my novice colleagues have - which suggests a great lack of education on the part of the public as to what constitutes a good puppetry performance.
Title image provided by Ben Sutherlandsend feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.