Puppets Exposed

Puppet Up! – Uncensored
Miller Auditorium, Kalamazoo
March 15, 8 p.m.
millerauditorium.com, (269) 387-2300

For more than 50 years, The Jim Henson Company has brought us characters that have become some of America's most heartwarming, hilarious and — let's be honest — grotesque celebrities. While Kermie and Miss Piggy may be household names by now, there actually are still a few things we don't know about them. Indeed, our ability to believe and enjoy most puppet shows hinges on one big mystery—the hidden actions of the puppeteers.

All of that changes with Henson Alternative's Puppet Up! – Uncensored, an adults-only improv show that offers a behind-the-scenes peek at the talented performers who pull the strings.

Like most novel ideas, Puppet Up! happened by accident. The story began when Brian Henson hired improv expert Patrick Bristow to give the company an improvisation course designed to hone the puppeteers' spontaneous humor. At the class' conclusion, what was originally intended to be a mere demonstration of the puppeteers' new skills took its audience by storm. Before long, the troupe was receiving critical acclaim worldwide.

Puppet Up! uniquely offers two shows in one. The first show is projected on television screens and shows the puppets as an audience would traditionally see them—from the waist up. The second show takes place onstage, where audiences can see six puppeteers manipulating 80 puppets to perform such complicated movements as ice skating and go-go dancing.

While the puppeteers do not portray separate characters from their puppets, the performers' presence onstage enhances the hilarity of the show's improvisation in unexpected and irresistible ways.

"Sometimes one of the characters will say something jaw-dropping or shocking and one of the puppeteers will look at the other one like 'What are you doing?," said Bristow, who is now the show's co-creator, director and producer. "The puppeteers like to mess with each other. Sometimes a puppet will look serious, but the puppeteer is trying not to laugh, so it's a unique window into what has been going on in Jim Henson shows for half a century. You get to see what you have never seen in puppet TV shows or movies. You also get to see beneath the camera screen and also what goes on before they say 'action' and after they say 'cut.'"

While raunchy, adult improv makes up the bulk of the show, a couple vintage Jim Henson and Frank Oz sketches pay tribute to Henson Alternative's roots. This aspect, along with the relationship between the audience and performers, introduces a touch of sentimentality to an outrageously goofy night out.

"What I love is every time we do it we meet a new audience, and it's like a really fantastic first date," Bristow said. "We don't know the overall temperament yet, but we get to know them better as they get to know us better—it's the absolute truth."


Other Performing Arts Events

Midwest Regional Alternative Dance Festival (RAD Fest)
Wellspring Theater, Kalamazoo
March 13-16
Festival passes $18-40, individual concert tickets $10
midwestradfest.org, (269) 342-4354

A vibrant celebration of modern and contemporary dance, the RAD Fest is a juried showcase of 51 artists and their companies. Five festival concerts feature breathtaking original works, while junior and master classes allow guests to hit the dance floor. An artist discussion panel, film series and after-party provide additional opportunities for fun and spectacle.

Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids Presents Driving Miss Daisy
Spectrum Theater, Grand Rapids
March 20, 22-23, 27, 29-30; show times at 2 & 7 p.m.
$18-20, $5 with student ID
jtgr.org, (616) 234-3595

Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Driving Miss Daisy tells of the story of an elderly Jewish widow, Miss Daisy, and an African American chauffeur, Hoke. While Miss Daisy's racial prejudice initially causes her to reject Hoke, a special relationship gradually develops between the two characters. As the unlikely friends face personal heartbreak and social upheaval, their journey sheds light on the universal themes of racism, victimization and love.

Opera Grand Rapids Presents The Abduction from the Seraglio
East Grand Rapids Performing Arts Center
March 7 & 8, 7:30 p.m.
$21-$98, 50 percent off with student or senior ID
operagr.org, (616) 451-2741

A black comedy featuring some of opera's most difficult arias, The Abduction from the Seraglio tells the tragic tale of a Spanish nobleman's attempt to rescue his lover from a Turkish harem. Opera Grand Rapids offers the unique opportunity to witness this Mozart masterpiece close-up in an intimate venue with limited seating.