Oh, Naughty Muppets. What Would Jim Henson Think of You Now?

Three things that may make many a theater lover run for the hills:
1. Puppeteers
2. Improv
3. Audience Participation.

If you feel otherwise, you might want to Run! Not Walk! to Stuffed and Unstrung. If you like puppets, but are lukewarm about the other two items, you might want to dawdle over there.

I am of the latter camp. I am particularly fond of puppets, both in children's entertainment and as integrated -- in a non-gratuitous manner -- into theater for adults. (See: my reviews of Avenue Q and Compulsion.) But I find that improv is often a party trick and audience participation is fun for the participant. Ticket holders should stay seated and the talent should write their own material. Stuffed and Unstrung, an adult puppet show from Henson Alternative, is not built upon these principles.

It would seem to be born of the same zeitgeist that brought us Avenue Q; our desire to titter at the incongruity of naughty and innocent. Perhaps it's particularly satisfying to see our childhood icons brought down to our flawed (or dirty-minded) level. The corruption of innocence and the tweaking of sacred cows (or frogs, monsters, pigs..) is taboo, hence irresistible. Sexed up Muppets and Barbie dolls appeal to ironic hipsters who have grown up and now know better than to believe in make believe.

And realists/nihilists love to shove sad realities down Pollyanna throats. In the Gen- X film Reality Bites, Winona Ryder asks "Why can't things just work out okay, like at the end of a Brady Bunch episode?" And realist/nihilist Ethan Hawke snarks back: "Because Mr. Brady died of AIDS."

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Or, to a less tragic effect, Avenue Q's orange-skinned muppet sings "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" Ah, little puppet of my childhood! We sigh. You too have problems.

Plus, cheery outlooks are annoying. I'm tempted to go onto You Tube right now to provide some examples of NC-17-rated parodies of G-rated iconography, but I know that will take all day.

And yes, who doesn't like to imagine Barbie and Ken getting it on. ("Nice As–cott," Barbie tells Ken in Toy Story 3, Pixar's wink-wink to knowing grown-ups.) Or Ken and G.I. Joe? Or Peppermint Patty and Marci. Which brings us to Bert and Ernie.

Rumors of Bert and Ernie's longtime romance and domestic partnership have prevailed for so long in popular culture (mostly as irreverent jokes) that some gay rights proponents think it's only fair for them to marry. You may have heard of the petition. Sesame Workshop issued a statement saying that the pair "remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."

Avenue Q does attempt to redress the dearth of gay, felt, hand puppets in society, both with raunch and sincerity. While it depicts porn-loving monsters, sluts and gays, Stuffed and Unstrung, is not a satire of The Children's Television workshop but something of an homage to puppet visionary Jim Henson. Created by Henson's son, Brian, the show features The Jim Henson Company's wonderful puppet characters (80 of them) and the company's talented puppeteers.

Yes, the show invites call outs from audience members who suggest adult situations for the puppeteers to improvise. Yes, naughtiness happens. And yes most of it is more puerile than witty. But, at its best, Stuffed is interesting because it reveals the strings of puppeteering or, the hand up the bottom (as host Patrick Bristow says) of a muppet in action. Henson, the puppeteers and a few computer geeks take pains to show us how human movements and technical wizardry became fanciful puppet play. We watch the performers carefully maneuvering the puppets in front of cameras and green screens and we can see the large screens where the magic happens.

The show incorporates archival footage and live action "recreations" of some of the simple puppet films that Jim Henson made in his 20s in the 1950s and that Frank Oz made in his 20s in the 60s. These scenes are lovely and very simple in their gentle humor and quiet choreography. While Brian Henson is paying tribute to his father's craft, Stuffed also shows that dirty words, digital enhancements and game show antics don't really improve upon this craft.

Meanwhile, I am eagerly awaiting the big screen reboot of The Muppets , the first new Muppet feature in 12 years! It stars my old friends, Kermit and Miss Piggy, and while I can witness their obvious chemistry, I really would rather not hear about what they do behind closed doors.

Stuffed and Unstrung runs through August 27, 2011 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit shnsf.com.

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