Sesame Street Grows Up in ‘Avenue Q’
Racism, closeted homosexuality, porn and broken dreams — it’s all grounds for some seriously hard-hitting commentary. But it’s surprisingly lighthearted. And there are puppets.
That’s the context for AdHoc Productions’ Avenue Q, which opened on Thursday, April 11, and runs through April 21 at the Black Box Theater in the Burlington Road Building.
Once called a “combination of ‘The Real World’ and ‘Sesame Street’” by The New Yorker, Avenue Q tells the tale of the residents of the fictitious Avenue Q, a rundown New York City neighborhood where everyone’s looking for their purpose in life but having trouble facing reality along the way. Each actor carries their respective puppet character throughout the course of the show, manipulating the puppet through its various activities.
The show opens with the arrival of Princeton (Oxford College freshman Tyler Moon), a recent college graduate who moves to New York City set on finding meaning in his life. But en route to finding meaning, Princeton has to deal with a few other obstacles: during the first 15 minutes of the show, he gets laid off before even starting his new job and ends up in a dilapidated apartment supervised by a washed-up Gary Coleman. Princeton’s neighborhood is composed of a hodgepodge of eccentric characters, including porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster, closeted homosexual Republican banker Rod and Princeton’s love interest, endearing misfit Kate Monster (played by the charming College senior Erica Morris).
But Princeton doesn’t give up on finding his “purpose.” In fact, he’s so fixated on finding purpose that he perceives opportunity where there is none. At one point, he looks whimsically at the ground, before exclaiming, “Oh look, here’s a penny! It’s from the year I was born … it’s a sign!”
Avenue Q’s wide-eyed determination (plus its use of puppets) resembles the conviction of the Muppets or Sesame Street, the kind of nurturing, positive television shows that our generation grew up on.
But these puppets aren’t quite as wholesome as Big Bird: they curse, they’re blatantly racist, angst-ridden and egocentric, and they have raucous puppet sex.
But the shock factor of an R-rated Kermit the Frog isn’t all Avenue Q has to offer. It’s about facing the real world. It’s about realizing that dreams don’t always come true but still finding a way to look on the bright side of life.
It pokes fun at adolescent pains, like the way everyone’s convinced their problems are the worst (the entire casts complains together, “It sucks to be me!”) and the inevitable over-analysis of wondering if someone likes you (Kate Monster inquisitively reads off the songs on a mixtape Princeton has made her: “‘That’s What Friends Are For’? ‘Kiss the Girl’? ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’? What does this mean?!”).
Still, the best parts of Avenue Q are indubitably the songs. Simultaneously upbeat and philosophical, the characters sing their way through life crises, alarming revelations and unsettling self-discoveries.
Especially noteworthy are the self-explanatory “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and the absurdly awkward “You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love).”
But the most poignant song from Avenue Q, at least for us college students, is “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” a change-of-pace ballad that finds the characters nostalgic for dorm rooms, meal plans and time spent hanging out on the Quad. The characters long for the days of college, when “you know who you are.”
That’s obviously not the case. But as the song insightfully points out, that’s the whole point of college. In college, you’re expected to be changing your mind and discovering who you are, and all the resources around you are there to help you settle those concerns.
And in a moment presented as honestly as this scene, where Kate, Princeton and Nicky (College freshman Devin Porter) lament that the real world isn’t as simple as dropping a class or talking to an advisor, the realization rings incredibly true.
Throughout the entire production, Avenue Q never explained or even hinted at the meaning behind the puppets. But whatever the reason for this choice, each human/puppet pair gradually morphed into one entity throughout the course of the production.
The characters are no more human and no more puppet — they are synthesized into one living, breathing, thinking, pondering, searching unit.
The puppets are caricatures of themselves, singing out their every problem and making decisions under the influence of the literal “Bad Idea Bears.” But when you get down to it, these puppets are really no more ridiculous than the rest of us. They follow the same basic line of thinking, like the way they make up elaborate lies on the spot and use the idea of morals to guilt other people into helping them. So at the end of the day, maybe we’re all caricatures of ourselves.
On that note, for a show about puppets, Avenue Q is surprisingly deep. The puppets go through the same problems that we do, and they never find a simple solution to puppet or human dilemmas.
Rather, Avenue Q ends on the equally optimistic and terrifying note that, “Everything in Life is Only for Now.” And that means everything: the good (“Life! Love! Work! Happiness!”) just as much as the bad (“Sex! The DUC! The cuts!”). As Princeton remarks, “Life may be scary, but it’s only temporary.”
— By Emelia Fredlick
Photo by Erin Baker