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John Lamb, Published February 26 2013

Puppets say – and do – the darnedest things in ‘Avenue Q’

MOORHEAD - Andrew Jacobsen remembers his first time. He said it was “awkward,” unsure where to put his hands, wanting to make sure his partner was comfortable.

“Being asked to jump into that, it’s almost like a dance, getting that awkwardness with the other person out of the way,” he explains.

You can understand his hesitancy: It’s not every day you have to act out a puppet sex scene in a musical.

Jacobsen is one of the puppeteers in Minnesota State University Moorhead’s production of “Avenue Q,” which opens today .

The comic musical earned a reputation – and three Tony Awards – after it opened on Broadway in 2003. Audiences flocked to the play in which a group of 20-something puppets cope with everyday problems, like trying to figure out their place in life, while using everyday, sometimes blue, language. The fuzzy soul searching includes finding a career path, addressing racism, exploring relationships and sexuality.

A lot of sexuality.

While the musical has become a pop culture phenomenon, the MSUM show is recommended for mature audiences only.

“It’s like ‘Sesame Street’ for adults. It’s hilarious,” says stage manager, Claire Azure, who saw the play in New York. “I thought it would be a great show to do. It’s definitely challenging. I just never expected MSUM to do it.”

MSUM added it to its recent run of racy productions (“Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Rent” and “Cabaret”), and the student actors are enjoying the challenges of taking on a second skin.

“The puppet gives me a chance to do voices I wouldn’t do as a human. I find a comfort in that,” says Nikko Raymo, who plays the slacker Nicky.

The one thing Nicky makes uncomfortable is that he is a “live hand” puppet, which requires two puppeteers. While Raymo gives Nicky’s voice and also works the body, mouth, right arm and hand, Laurel Schuessler controls the character’s left hand.

“The biggest challenge I have is to remember there’s another person attached to me,” Raymo says.

“I don’t see what he’s going to do next,” Schuessler says.

The two actors had to get comfortable working together, and intimacy is a theme of the play.

Slacker Nicky lives with the uptight banker, Rod, who secretly has a crush on his straight roommate. The tension is addressed in the duet “If You Were Gay.”

Communicating subtle emotions, especially in a comedy, is one of the biggest struggles for puppeteers, who have to reconsider body language without being able to use facial expressions.

“It’s easy for an actor to do it, but to do it with a puppet (stinks),” says James Stenger, who plays Rod.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges, making your puppet look alive,” Raymo says.

An introductory workshop taught them to embrace character quirks, like having the puppet scratch itself or nodding while listening intently.

“Breathing. You don’t expect to have to think about that from a puppet.” Schuessler says.

And, of course, there’s the awkwardness of the sex scene. Jacobsen’s character Princeton asks out his neighbor Kate Monster and after many drinks, they go to bed.

“There’s full puppet nudity,” Azure says. “You’re looking at two childlike toys totally naked. … It took a little getting used to.”

The scene is punctuated with the number “You Can be as Loud as the Hell You Want When You’re Making Love.” Other humorous tunes include “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.”

Lest you think the ditties are novelty gags, the play was nominated for six Tonys and won for best musical, best book of music and best original score.

“It makes you want to laugh, this big contradiction of childlike dolls with adult themes,” Azure says. “It’s just not as offensive coming through a puppet.”

The people behind the puppets agree.

“This is one I’m comfortable with having my parents come to,” Raymo says.


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

IF YOU GO

What: “Avenue Q”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday

Where: Hansen Theatre, Roland Dille Center for the Arts, Minnesota State University Moorhead

Other info: This play is for mature audiences only. (218) 477-2271 for tickets