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Puppets on Merry-Go-Rounds Behind the frisky puppetry of "Stuffed and Unstrung"

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

It’s not easy for puppets to ride a merry-go-round, but on a recent Wednesday night at the Union Square Theatre, that’s exactly what they did.

The puppets were in Stuffed and Unstrung, an adults-only improv show from Henson Alternative, the edgy branch of the Jim Henson Company. In one scene, audience members gave suggestions for a fictional movie, and the result was a spy caper set on a merry-go-round. Throughout the skit, the puppeteers kept their puppets moving in a circle, suggesting all sorts of kiddie park fun.

But that was only one level of the scene. During Stuffed and Unstrung, performers play to a video camera that’s stationed in the middle of the stage, so the puppets are projected onto giant screens on both sides of the theatre. If they want, audiences can watch the entire show on the screens, meaning they only see the puppets and not the puppeteers.

And when you’re only watching puppets, it’s easier to imagine they’re riding a merry-go-round. The screen tricks your eye into believing there’s a playground just below the frame.

Of course, this means the puppeteers are responsible for two shows at once, the one on stage and the one on camera. The extra responsibility pushes them to their limits, and that’s exactly how Brian Henson wants it. As the son of Jim Henson, the executive producer of Stuffed and Unstrung, and one of the show’s performers, he’s committed to showing New York audiences what Henson Alternative can do.

And New Yorkers expect a lot. “They’re very demanding of our puppetry choices,” he says. “If we do clever things, then they have a huge appreciation for it, so I’m always pushing the guys to make the show about more than humorous wordplay. They need to do humorous physical things. They need to think about blocking. They need to enter with one puppet riding on another puppet’s back.”

Henson asserts that playing to a camera, which is integral to the training at the Jim Henson Company, actually liberates performers to be riskier on stage. “A puppeteer is never internalizing a performance,” he says. “When you’re watching your puppet in the monitor, you’re not thinking, ‘That’s the puppet on my arm,’ you’re thinking, ‘That’s a character, and that character has to make a choice in this scene.’

“In many ways, that pushes you to places you weren’t capable of going. As puppeteers, we constantly pull out characters, and we don’t know where they came from.”

This mediation also affects the audience. Puppets steal focus in the show, so it’s easy to forget there are human beings bringing them to life. According to Henson, this encourages the crowd to relax and have more fun.

“Improv suffers when audiences can sense the actors feeling stage fright and pressure,” he says. “But with puppetry, there isn’t that feeling. That can free you up to go anywhere.”

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Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

(Photo of Brian Henson by Carol Rossegg)