Henson Alternative's off-Broadway comedy "Stuffed and Unstrung" isn't the kind of puppet show you might have grown up with.
Part of the Jim Henson Co. — which brought children "Sesame Street" and "The Muppets" — "Stuffed and Unstrung" is a puppet show for more mature audiences. It will return to the Irvine Barclay Theatre for six performances, stuffed with quick-witted improv and Muppets, all grown up.
Host Patrick Bristow, 80 Henson Alternative puppets, and six comedian puppeteers will present this series of live, 100% uncensored comedy-variety show for adults from Dec. 28 through Jan. 1. The lineup includes a special New Year's Eve show on Dec. 31 that will end with a live telecast from Times Square and countdown to midnight (EST) by the felt characters.
In 2010, "Stuffed and Unstrung" appeared off-Broadway at the Union Square Theatre. A revamped version of "Puppet-Up," renamed "Stuffed and Unstrung" for its New York debut, garnered rave reviews, including an "A-" from Entertainment Weekly.
The cast features world-class comedian puppeteers associated with hit children's television shows and theatrical productions, including "Sesame Street," "Bear in the Big Blue House," "The Muppets" and "Avenue Q."
The show is a mix of improvised comedy sketches, songs and scripted recreations of vintage Jim Henson and Frank Oz comedy pieces that first aired on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and launched the Henson phenomenon.
Each show is unique in itself.
Aside from the minimal scripted material, most of the production is based on suggestions from the audience. During the course of the performance, the Henson comedian puppeteers make up the sketches on the spot, basing them on viewers' ideas.
"For certain improvs I'll ask for a relationship between the two characters, or a workplace, or something like that," co-creator Bristow said in a phone interview.
"Sometimes we do what we call spot improvs where I say, 'You tell me what do you want to see,'" he added. "And if they say, 'Clowns on fire,' then that's what we'll do! You never know what you're going to get and I try to make the audience feel as comfortable and unthreatened as I possibly can so that they'll participate and then they'll basically take over the show. And then I just become the ringmaster."
Audience participation is taken to the next level in two pieces, when audience members are brought up onstage.
"We never drag anyone up there that doesn't want to go," Bristow said. "Typically they have a great time. The audience loves them. We don't make fun of them. Ridicule is not part of the Henson approach. Those pieces with audience members being involved on stage are two of our most bulletproof structures."
Also, each show can be enjoyed in two ways: watching the action onstage, or viewing the live puppet feed projected on two screens overhead. Unlike classic television shows like "Sesame Street," audiences now get to go behind the scenes of Henson puppetry magic.
"What we elected to do was not to hide the puppeteer," Bristow said.
"Usually they are hidden behind a wall. We deconstructed that and pulled it away so that the audience could also see the puppeteers underneath the camera lens, underneath the frame," he continued. "By that you get to see almost a totally different show. How they are interacting. Are they breaking character? Are they trying not to laugh?
"You see a puppet up on the screen and it looks like it's ice skating. You might want to look down to the stage and see how the puppeteer is moving it so smoothly that it looks like its gliding. It kind of two shows in one that way."
On a final note, the show is not suited for children. All audience members must be 18 or older to attend. After all, these Muppets aren't your friendly neighborhood Big Bird.
"You know, puppets can get away with murder," Bristow said.
Content is rated anywhere from PG-13 to R, but in the end, the audience ultimately decides which direction to take it.
"There have been occasions where the audience suggestions and the overall vibe of the audience lent itself to a little more shocking blue humor here and there," Bristow said. "Certainly there's a little bit of language usually. And again, puppets get away with it. We don't endeavor to go blue, to go X-rated, to go shocking. We keep that as a permission slip."
If You Go
What: "Stuffed and Unstrung"
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: Performances begin on Dec. 28 and go through Jan. 1
More information: For tickets and showtimes, call (949) 854-4646 or go to http://www.thebarclay.org