On stage now at the Panasonic Theatre are 85 tiny pieces of artwork. Beautifully detailed, textured, colourful, and startlingly evocative, these creations are intensely mesmerizing—even when hanging lifeless on a display wall, their toothless mouths gaping open.
When they get hands stuck up their asses, though, it’s an entirely different story.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Mirvish Productions announced an expanded season last month that includes the following: Chicago, starring Elvis Stojko; this year’s Toronto Fringe hit The Musical of Musicals, the Musical!; and Puppet Up: Uncensored, which began a short engagement in Toronto last night. Billed as “a live, outrageous, comedy, variety show for adults only,” the show elicited genuine childlike enthusiasm from audience members. They had likely grown up watching Jim Henson’s beloved puppets on the The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock (or in the more sinister Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal). But Puppet Up: Uncensored is a very different from your average puppet show. Co-created by Brian Henson (Jim’s son) and comedian Patrick Bristow under the Henson Alternative label, these puppets are weird, foul-mouthed, and dirty. Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie would be appalled.
Over the course of two hours, puppets of everything from a troublesome hot dog, to an extraterrestrial, to a regular guy in a sweatshirt are plucked from their spots on the wall by a group of Henson puppeteers for quick improvised sketches inspired by suggestions from the audience. Sprinkled into the mix are a few musical numbers (sometimes incorporating clever video tricks), some audience participation, and two recreated vintage sketches from Jim Henson’s earliest performances. With the aid of two large video screens, audience members get both a wide-angle and close-up view of the action—and are offered a rare simultaneous glimpse of puppet and puppet-master.
The sketches themselves vary in complexity and quality, and so do the improvisers. Puppeteer Colleen Smith is a clear standout, and Bristow is a quick and lively host. But the real stars are obviously the 85 non-human cast members that are, frankly, quite gorgeous to look at on their own. The funniest moments come not from what’s being said, but from who (or what) is doing the saying. A sketch involving a grandfather (a giant brown ape with jewellery) telling his two grandchildren their favourite story didn’t become a gut-buster until one of the children (a small pug in a diaper) started draping himself over the larger animal. A weasel’s relentless stare into the camera against a stark black background, lights bouncing off its shiny beady eyes and glistening on its thick fur, was terrifying, hilarious, and stunning all at the same time. These moments of ludicrous frivolity reminded us why we loved Jim Henson as a child, and why we should re-watch The Muppets more often as adults.
Though the material didn’t actually get as racy as we expected it to (puppets can get away with a lot—as you already know if you’ve ever heard the soundtrack from the musical Avenue Q), the show did include swearing, violence, human excrement, penis jokes (lots of them), and even a little incest for good measure. And yes, one of the early audience suggestions was “Rob Ford” (so don’t try suggesting him again—the cast needs to stay fresh).
Because it confusingly (but enjoyably) appeals to the kid inside each of us, Puppet Up: Uncensored is likely going to be a hit.