Review: Puppet Up! Uncensored (WestBeth Entertainment and Henson Alternative / Mirvish)

Julianne Buescher and Colleen Smith in Puppet Up Photo by Carol Rosegg

Mirvish presents the hilarious improvisational adult puppet show Puppet Up! Uncensored at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre

I have a fascination with puppets, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that fascination started with Jim Henson’s work. Although, I don’t think I could narrow down whether it was from Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock or The Muppet Show. When I heard Mirvish was presenting a show created by Brian Henson (Jim Henson’s son) and Patrick Bristow called Puppet Up! Uncensored, I was pretty excited.

I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I freakin’ loved it. My face actually hurt at the end from laughing and grinning so much.

Now, let’s be clear, this is not a show with depth. You will not walk away from this a newly enlightened person. But funny? Oh gods yes, so funny.

Improv is always a bit tough to review since, by its very nature, it’s different every night, but I’ll give you a flavour of the evening. Walking in we see chairs on stage, one chair on one side and six on the other. The single chair is occupied by an MC of sorts (director and co-creator Patrick Bristow), and the others are for the improvisers (Michael Oosterom, Colleen Smith, Ted Michaels, Brian Clark, Peggy Etra and Grant Baciocco).

The overall format of the show involves Bristow presenting challenges to specific improvisers, much in the style of the television show Whose Line is it Anyway. The improvisers tagged are told to “Puppet up!” by the audience.

This way of involving the audience felt forced to me at first, but I have to admit, after yelling “puppet up” a few times I really warmed to it. It was a nice non-threatening way of involving the audience. Audience involvement in general was handled really well in this piece.

Sometimes that’s what sinks an improv show for me; when it feels like half the show is listening to suggestions from the audience about people, places, and things for the improvisers to work into the scenes, or someone from the audience is being forced to interact against their will.

There was none of that during Puppet Up! Uncensored. Bristow wandered down into the audience with a microphone towards someone who vigorously shook his head no and Bristow put the man at ease with grace, and made the audience laugh at the same time. A rare but wonderful talent.

Speaking of talent, this stage is brimming with it. Improv is no easy task and nor is puppetry, the two combined is a sight to behold, and these performers do it with gusto. My show partner, Sam, who also adored the show, told me that she loved how the performers manipulated the puppets in a way that made them seem to have different facial expressions, despite the fact that, for the most part, their faces couldn’t move.

We also talked about how incredible the puppets themselves were. The detail and obvious care that went into their creation was incredible. Some of this detail was visible thanks to the two huge screens flanking the stage, providing the ‘puppet only’ view of the action, where the puppeteers were not visible.

When the show began I was torn, I didn’t know if I wanted to watch the version on the screen, or the version on the stage. Sometimes the camera itself was being used to great effect in the performance, so the screen was very important and I focused on it then, but mostly I found that I was more drawn to the action on stage. I loved being able to see all the things that went into bringing a puppet to life.

By now you’ve figured out that I loved the show and was really impressed with the talent on stage. They were all great and all deserve a great big shout out. I also want to single out a few who were really on their game last night.

Peggy Etra, who had improbably tall platform shoes so she was tall enough for her puppets to be at the right height (I’m assuming), was not only a great puppeteer and improviser, she also had an amazing voice. She sang something that made me feel like I shouldn’t be sitting in a puppet improv show I was loving, but instead in a bar listening to her sing the blues, forever.

Colleen Smith was fantastic all night, but as a weasel variety show host had me laughing so hard I thought I was going to stop breathing. This woman oozes talent and imagination.

And Michael Oosterom, I’m not sure it was one specific thing, I just know that I was extra excited whenever he was coming on stage. It felt like there was some kind of solid foundation that he provided that helped everyone connect and bring an even stronger performance to the pieces he was involved in. It was always a treat when he was on stage.

Finally, one figure that may sometimes be overlooked, is Dan Ring. He’s the musical director. He was incredible. He sits on stage providing accompanying music and sounds to set the mood. I loved that, not only was he very good at what he did, but he also looked like he was having a blast. Whenever I looked over he was dancing, with feeling, to the music he was playing.

I had so much fun at this show. As much as I love deep challenging theatre, I also really love just brainlessly laughing my ass off at outrageous talent. This show isn’t just a bunch of really good puppeteers, it’s also a bunch of really good improvisers. A show with either one of those would be great. This one was fantastic and I highly recommend it for fantastically fun night.

 

Details:

  • Puppet Up! Uncensored, is playing until November 3, 2013 at The Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge St)
  • Show runs Tuesdays to Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 4 & 8 PM; Sundays at 4 PM
  • Ticket prices range from $19 to $79
  • Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Panasonic Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com

Photo of Julianne Buescher (not in the Toronto production) and Colleen Smith by Carol Rosegg