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‘Avenue Q’ is all about adulthood

Musical with puppets may look familiar, but it’s no ‘Sesame Street’

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published: February 17, 2016, 10:00am
7 Photos
Tristan James as Brian (clockwise from top left), Timothy Busch with puppet Princeton, Jacqueline Baxter with Kate Monster, Kiara Gaulding as child star Gary Coleman -- yes, THAT Gary Coleman -- and Kennedy Marvin as Christmas Eve prepare for the upcoming Clark College musical production of "Avenue Q." (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
Tristan James as Brian (clockwise from top left), Timothy Busch with puppet Princeton, Jacqueline Baxter with Kate Monster, Kiara Gaulding as child star Gary Coleman -- yes, THAT Gary Coleman -- and Kennedy Marvin as Christmas Eve prepare for the upcoming Clark College musical production of "Avenue Q." (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s easy to describe the musical “Avenue Q,” which opens at Clark College this weekend, as “Sesame Street” for adults.

But that’s still selling it short. It’s really “Sesame Street” for adults of a certain mischievous, satirical, politically incorrect sensibility.

With songs like “It Sucks to Be Me,” “The Internet Is for Porn” and even “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” the Tony-award-winning show is a slightly ridiculous reality check on the serious issues that newly independent and semi-independent young adults face.

Can’t we be more than friends? What if I just blow my cash on beer? What about the bills? What’s my purpose in life? My girlfriend dumped me, now what?

I graduated with a liberal arts degree — what comes next?

“It feels like real life to me,” said actor Timothy Busch, whose character, Princeton, arrives on Avenue Q needing an apartment, a job, maybe even a girlfriend. Princeton started hunting for a flat on Avenue A, we learn, but couldn’t find anything affordable until he’d searched all the way out here.

If You Go

 What: “Avenue Q,” a musical by Jeff Witty, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, directed by Gene Bilby. Intended for mature audiences only.

 When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, 20, 26 and 27, and March 3, 4 and 5.

 Where: Decker Theater, Frost Arts Center, Clark College, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.

 Tickets: $15; seniors $13; students with ID and alumni with membership, $11.

 On the Web: www.clark.edu/academics/programs/theatre/season.php

Princeton also needs a puppeteer. The unique thing about “Avenue Q” is that it really does resemble “Sesame Street” in this crucial way: Much of the cast is puppets. Fuzzy monsters not very different from Ernie, Bert and Cookie Monster are the ones working out their personal issues in songs like “If You Were Gay” and “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” (The original 2004 Broadway production featured four actual “Sesame Street” puppeteers.)

But the puppeteers aren’t behind a screen or curtain. There they are, visible to all, singing and acting and dancing along with their littler selves.

“It’s fun and challenging to act and react with the puppets, not the people,” said actor Tristan James — who plays a person, not a puppet. “I like acting to puppets.”

Challenges

The puppets — and the loving satire of “Sesame Street” — are part of the show’s overall genius, according to Clark College drama teacher and “Avenue Q” director Gene Biby. Biby, 53, said he first saw a touring production of the show about eight years ago and was “a little shocked” at the mash-up of people and puppets, cute and profound.

But that’s just the kind of thing Biby likes to do. A thespian since high school, he worked for years as a city administrator in the Midwest until deciding to go back to school and get his doctorate in theater history, he said. He worked in Wisconsin until the snow and cold nearly killed him, he said, and then came to the Portland area looking for a more liberal scene.

That’s not exactly what he found in Vancouver, he said — but the productions he’s brought to the stage show that he’s doing his part. Biby’s recent annual winter musicals have covered lust and transvestism (“The Rocky Horror Show”), drugs, sex workers and HIV (“Rent”), and sexual discovery and rebellion in pre-Nazi Germany (“Spring Awakening”). The nonmusical material has been equally “adult,” according to college spokeswoman Hannah Erickson.

“This is part of a very conscious choice by Gene to expose his students to challenging work. He wants his students to be prepared for today’s industry. And today’s theatre world needs you to be able to do more than a solo from ‘Oklahoma!’ ” Erickson said.

Biby doesn’t think he’s doing anything terribly radical. After all, “Avenue Q” beat out crowd-pleaser “Wicked” for that Best Musical Tony well over a decade ago, he said. “It’s contemporary and it’s challenging material for students. Most of the show selections I’ve done are based on that,” he said.

The cast in “Avenue Q” is tasked with comedy, drama, song, dance — and, of course, puppetry. “There are challenges there,” Biby said. “How to hold the puppet and move its mouth while you’re talking, how to use your own body at the same time. You and the puppet are the character. You’re both representations.

“They have worked really hard on it. They’re a great cast,” Biby said. “The message is really applicable for college students who’re trying to figure out their purpose in life. It’s applicable to everybody, actually.”

In one early scene, two puppets sing about being gay, hypothetically. The jolly, straight, slightly clueless puppet reassures his friend that it’s OK — but the frustrated, closeted, Republican puppet can only deny, deny, deny.

There’s no denying the echo of cheerful Ernie and worried Bert. And the puppeteers have mastered that “Sesame Street” style of slightly childish articulation — so their characters really do seem like sweet, innocent Muppets negotiating a jarringly noninnocent world.

“It takes the cute factor and pushes you just a little past it,” said James. “It’s like an R-rated puppet show. There’s even a full-on puppet sex scene.”

If humans did that onstage at Clark College, the rating would not be R.

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