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Adult education… with puppets
Fort Wayne Civic takes on the hilarious and risqué Avenue Q
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
In the musical Avenue Q, actors share the stage with puppets, and some of the puppets look and sound a little familiar. There’s a shaggy, gruff-voiced creature called Trekkie Monster, for example, and two guys called Rod and Nicky who share an apartment.
To compound the familiarity, Rod, Nicky, and Trekkie Monster live on a city street with a host of other characters, and everyone sings infectious, memorable tunes that often try to convey a life lesson or capitalize on some kind of teachable moment.
Except in Avenue Q, which begins its run at the Fort Wayne Civic Theater on April 29, many of the characters are people in their early 20s, like Princeton (Aaron Mann) and Kate Monsters (Momo Lamping) — newly arrived in the “adult world” and trying to negotiate its rules, manners, and customs. And the songs they sing have titles like “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” “It Sucks to Be Me,” and “The Internet Is For Porn.”
And some of the language they use… well, it wouldn’t be found in a kid’s show, that’s for sure. Neither would loud puppet sex. You’ll find both in Avenue Q, so consider yourself warned.
“Yes, my jaw did drop a few times when I read the script,” laughs director Becky Niccum. “It has some language. During rehearsals, Eunice Wadewitz (the Civic’s musical director) will say ‘whoever thought you would hear those words coming out of my mouth?’ But you have to laugh because it’s so ridiculous.”
Like Niccum says, Avenue Q is ridiculous, but in a good way. The musical was a hit when it debuted in 2003, doing massive box office while garnering a host of awards and accolades, including a Tony “Triple Crown” for best musical, score, and book.
In Avenue Q, actors and puppets share the stage and interact, much like Sesame Street. References to that show abound, and one of the themes of Avenue Q is that the “grown-up world” is much harder and weirder than the messages the characters received from the kid’s show of their youth. In the “real world,” everyday is not a sunny day, and you’re no more special than anyone else. Just to put a fine point on it, “Gary Coleman” is a character Avenue Q (played by Fatima Washington in the Civic’s production), a reminder that great expectations in child hood don’t always materialize.
Niccum had heard about Avenue Q before stepping into the director’s chair, but hadn’t seen a production of it. Her last directing gig for the Civic was White Christmas. “This was different,” Niccum says. “I was really nervous at first, but I tried to just look on it as a challenge.”
It’s not just the subject matter and language that’s challenging. In Avenue Q, the actors/puppeteers are in full view of the audience. The actors need to be off-script early — you can’t work a puppet and hold a script at the same time — and had to learn a slightly different approach to stage work. The actors rehearsed in front of mirrors early on. “So many times, when we first started, I would be talking away and my puppet wasn’t even moving its mouth, or vice-versa,” says Chris Rasor, who plays Rod, the conservative investment banker with a secret. Rasor is no novice; he’s been acting and singing on stage since he was 14. But playing Rod took a little getting used to. “You’re doing everything you were trained to do as an actor, but there’s this puppet you have to coordinate with. You forget sometimes that you have to make this puppet come to life.”
Rasor saw a production of Avenue Q when it was on Broadway. He was struck by the way the actors handling the puppets seemed to “disappear” after just a minute or two in the opening scene. “You stop looking at the humans and zone in on the puppets. And the show is so darn funny anyway.”
Momo Lamping, who plays Kate Monster, was also familiar with Avenue Q — she had seen the touring production when it came to the Embassy a few years ago, and was an understudy for the play at school. “At school, they had us do a ‘puppet boot camp’ where they taught us all the basics,” she says.
Like Rasor, Lamping has a lot of stage experience — for the past few years, she’s worked at many different regional theaters around the US. But even “puppet boot camp” didn’t quite prepare her for the role of Kate Monster. “I think I had a little bit of an advantage, but… Working with a puppet is almost like having two brains. It’s kind of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time; you get good at it, and then someone says ‘switch,’ and there’s this moment when you forget everything you’re doing,” Lamping says.
Avenue Q is often described as a satire of Sesame Street and other kid’s TV programming in the 70s, but “satire” isn’t quite accurate. Like a Mel Brooks movie, Avenue Q seems to retain a lot of affection for the show it’s spoofing. Amidst all the salty language and raunchy subject matter, Avenue Q’s message isn’t all that different from a lesson Big Bird might have tried to pass on back in the day — be yourself, be kind and respectful to others, and don’t lose your dreams.
That’s how it seems to me, anyway. Granted, Avenue Q has a number called “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” so it’s possible I’m thinking a little too hard, but Chris Rasor assures me that my impressions aren’t totally off base. “There is that deeper lesson in there about how to accept people, fostering empathy,” he says. “The song ‘Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist’ talks about how we all say things we shouldn’t, or do things we regret. Everyone struggles with those things. The question is, how do we deal with them? Avenue Q has such a good story to tell and a good lesson to pass on.”
And a song called “My Girlfriend, Who Lives In Canada,” sung by a closeted gay character.
The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Avenue Q
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Friday, Apr 29 8:00 PM
Saturday, Apr 30 8:00 PM
Sunday, May 1 2:00 PM
Friday, May 6 8:00 PM
Saturday, May 7 8:00 PM
Tickets available at the box office; or call (260) 424-5220; or online at fwcivic.org.
*Not suitable for children. Parental discretion advised.
Contains adult language, themes, and deals humorously with aspects of sexuality.