There's a show-biz aphorism that if you act with kids or animals, you're going to get upstaged. The same has to be true of puppets. While they may lack the infectious spontaneity of carbon-based life forms that don't have to worry about death, taxes or Ted Cruz, there is still something about an inanimate object imbued with real human drives that commands attention. And while there is no shortage of weirdos who have explored—at length—why puppetry has been a staple of human expression since at least the ancient Greeks, the reality is that Big Bird, Howdy Doody and Kermit the Frog are more beloved by most of us than the cops and attorneys who truly care.
Okay, so there's a reason we embrace puppets. Even if demented and acting beyond the moral pale (i.e., the ones always beating the crap out of one another), they're still fake—a welcome respite from the all-too-real horrible stuff out there. But what is fascinating about Avenue Q, a crazy-popular musical that has wowed them from Broadway to Hong Kong, is that its puppets are manipulated by humans in full view. And rather than the Mortimer Snerds of the world, whose human handlers are basically ventriloquists, the human agents in Avenue Q are called upon to do real acting. And that, not this ersatz Sesame Street for grown-ups, is where the genuine spirit of Avenue Q resides.
Fortunately, in this Maverick Theater production, director Stephen Hulsey has assembled a cast equally proficient at singing and performing as it is in infusing life into the distinctive puppets created by All Puppet Players and Nathan Makaryk (billed as puppet consultant). Paced by a sparkling Rachel McLaughlan as our ingénue, Kate the Monster, and her on-again/off-again paramour Princeton (Tyler McGraw), the cast hurls itself into this silly romp. The show, first produced in 2003, is a joint therapy/bitch session and coming-of-age tale for those Gen Xers who realize that all the blarney about them being special doesn't mean squat when they're on the wrong side of 30 and forced to grapple with things such as work, romantic relationships and rotten people.
Forcing one's self to battle through soured dreams and keep on keeping on is why one character is named Gary Coleman, and yes, it's meant to be that Gary Coleman. Adair Gilliam plays Coleman in this show, one of three characters who isn't a puppet. But the Coleman she plays is just as theatrical and bizarre as the puppets: a former child superstar turned building superintendent after his parents ripped off his fortune. Unlike the other characters, all of whom struggle with some issue of identity or their place in the world, Coleman swung on that brass ring, and the sassy, sardonic Gilliam nails the late actor's resignation and fatalism.
While there's a lot of talk about Avenue Q for its adult-oriented material and songs (songs such as “The Internet Is for Porn,” “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” and “Schadenfreude,” as well as a wickedly graphic portrayal of puppet sex), it's still a musical and, as such, mostly dumb. Co-creator Jeff Marx would go on to theatrical brilliance with The Book of Mormon, but this show's plot, music and lyrics feel like a hodgepodge of banal ideas and snarky quips that doesn't add up to much—kind of like a theater review. But it's just puppets! So everything is forgiven, from the barbs at closeted homosexuals in the person of Rod (a sweetly histrionic Michael Rodriguez), the over-the-top stereotype of the Asian-American Christmas Eve (a terrific Bachi Dillague), and the inclusion of the Bad Idea Bears (Kevin Garcia and Jilly Pretzel), two insufferably cute puppets who are also terrible assholes.
The reason all is forgiven is that it's hilarious and entertaining, a show that, even if it's just paying lip-service to its themes, at least broaches compelling issues of finding one's purpose and meaning in an uncaring universe. The show's first number is “It Sucks to Be Me,” in which characters take turns documenting how lousy their lives are, and it ends with “For Now,” in which the audience is bid adieu with the notion that no matter how difficult things feel in the moment, everything is temporary. And yes, whining is about as passé as irony these days, and, sure, everything is temporary, but that doesn't mean it can't get a whole lot worse; there is still a place for venting and for emotional pick-me-ups. And while the depth of Avenue Q isn't any more profound than an annoying inspirational meme on social media, and sometimes you just want to shake these puppets and tell them to scream “FUCK IT!” and grab their balls, they're just so goddamn cute. Especially those bears—oh, those asshole bears.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???