In Renton, Foul-Mouthed Puppets Are the Stars
Sesame Street-style characters meet grown-up situations in the throwback, puppet-filled Broadway hit Avenue Q. Renton Civic Theatre’s lively staging runs through tomorrow night.
Part-way through Renton Civic Theatre’s latest show, I found myself wondering: Is there anything Matthew Posner can’t do? Over the past couple years, I’ve seen him stagger in and steal the show as the farcical title character in The Nerd at Taproot Theatre; play a convincing villain in Showtunes Theatre’s concert-style presentation of the musical 9 to 5; and show off the original furry creations he’s made for his own puppet company, Hand to Mouth Creative. But directing the puppet-centered musical Avenue Q, while also creating its crass and lovable stars, seems like a next-level commitment.
Then again, maybe Avenue Q — with its special brew of puppetry, musicality, and over-the-top comedy — was the show Posner was made to direct.
On now in downtown Renton, Avenue Q brings the warm fuzzies of Sesame Street to the ambivalence of youth and all its trappings: job hunting, romance, fatalism, money troubles, unbridled optimism, and poor decision-making among them. The story centers on newcomer Princeton (a puppet, played here by Graham Arthur Blair), who’s just graduated college and ventured out to the only place he can afford, and Kate Monster (also a puppet, played by Alyssa Hope Maas), who’s in an entry-level job she can’t stand. Along for the ride are their (mostly) young and (mostly) personable neighbors, in a run-down building on a far-out street.
Princeton and Kate have an obvious connection, but he’s busy running off with another puppet, dubbed Lucy the Slut (played by Brittany Todd), while Kate squares off with uptight boss-puppet named Thistletwat (also played by Todd). (If the names aren’t a clear indicator already, this puppet show wasn’t exactly designed for kids.)
The leading puppets are paired up with a few humans — young couple Brian (Peter McCarthy King) and Christmas Eve (Stefanie MeiFang Van Rafelghem) and building superintendent/former child actor Gary Coleman (Vincent J. Orduña) — and plenty more puppet friends. Down the way are a closeted Rod (Ross Young), whose relative stodginess, wealth, and prudishness make him an odd fit for the building, and loafing roommate Nicky (Colin Madison), an obvious take on Bert and Ernie. Upstairs lives a hermit-like Oscar the Grouch personality with a fondness for porn, named Trekkie Monster (played by Bill Bates, who also helped with the puppets’ creation). The Bad Idea Bears (performed by Britt Boyd and Emily Courcy) swoop in at inopportune times to encourage tempting and irresponsible life choices.
With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q is a thinly-veiled riff on the decades-spanning children’s show Sesame Street. It brings the warm fuzzies of the puppet/human conversations in that timeless show up to its past audiences’ present problems and more advanced (but still juvenile) humor. And while the 2003 hit is still funny now, it might be nostalgia that’s most at home with elder Millennials and Gen Xers who grew up around the same time as the Internet did.
That also puts the show in a tough spot with some of its humor. On the original cast recording for the Broadway show, one character is based on Asian stereotypes (and named Christmas Eve, no less) and deploys an exaggerated accent that rises to South Park‘s “Shitty Wok” level. The Renton show tones it way down (probably a good choice), but the toned-down version of the stereotype lands in a comedic wasteland of unfunny but just noticeable enough to raise questions. One of the show’s best-known (and catchiest) musical numbers, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” is basically an uncritical take on “reverse racism” which (unsurprisingly) shrugs off any thought about systems of oppression.
In its comedic approach, Avenue Q is a lot like Family Guy: it sets out gleefully to offend everyone, while couching the crassest bits in varying levels of endearing personas, moments of sweetness, and an overall story arc that’s just innocent enough that the cringey parts usually don’t get too cringey.
Those questionable bits of past-their-sell-by-date humor are intrinsic to the piece, unfortunately. Renton Civic Theatre’s focus on the characters’ sweetness along with quality staging — particularly with Posner’s exceptional puppets and cast members’ deftness with them, a strong cast and orchestra, and Alyssa Hope Maas’ stand-out voice as Kate Monster — overall makes for a very fun show.
And, like on Sesame Street, you can count on a sweet outcome, even from the grouchiest of monsters.
Avenue Q runs through 10/8 at Renton Civic Theatre in Renton. Tickets are $32, here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered, multi-stall, and upstairs; one accessible restroom is on the main level; theatre is wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.