The puppets take Manhattan

Think puppets are strictly for kids? Think again. On Broadway and at other venues, puppet shows are breaking the mold by tackling Rossini operas and mature subjects.

In a packed theater on Broadway, Kate Monster, a fuzzy-faced puppet in a lavender top, laments her nonexistent love life.

"Why don't I have a boyfriend?" she sings, in one of the few lyrics that can be printed in this paper. As the song continues, she and the other characters cheerily belt out complaints about being dateless, jobless, and broke.

You're right. This isn't "Sesame Street." "Avenue Q" features Kate and other puppets making out, falling in love, and breaking up. The show, which had its official Broadway opening Thursday night, is just one example of the increasing prominence of puppets in the theater. Long relegated to children's birthday parties, puppets are no longer considered strictly kiddie fare.

Instead, they're becoming mainstream, hip, and sophisticated. And, yes, sometimes risqué.

"There's a lot of new and young blood and ideas," says Pam Arcerio, artistic director of the O'Neill Puppetry Conference, who also plays Grungetta Grouch, Oscar the Grouch's girlfriend, on "Sesame Street."

At venues like New York's P.S. 122, St. Ann's Warehouse, and HERE Arts Center, puppeteers are tackling Rossini operas, Shakespearean tragedies, and Ionesco tales. Earlier this year, Basil Twist's "Symphonie Fantastique," an underwater puppet spectacle set to Hector Berlioz's 19th-century classical composition, played at the Lincoln Center. And at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, there's currently an international exhibit of ancient and contemporary puppetry, called Puppetry of Shadow and Light. In downtown Manhattan, you can catch "puppet slams," modeled loosely after "poetry slams." There's even a dada rock puppet show: Dirty Jimmy's Basement.

Puppets are also a growing presence on Broadway. Besides "Avenue Q," there's Julie Taymor's "The Lion King." In its fifth year, the musical features stunning giraffe, elephant, and hyena puppets. It's still Broadway's biggest hit. This fall, "The Little Shop of Horrors" will debut on Broadway, starring Seymour, a life-sized talking and singing Venus flytrap puppet.

"The interest in puppet-art theater has been growing since the late '80s and early '90s, says John Bell, puppeteer of New York's Great Small Works and an assistant professor of performing arts at Boston's Emerson College.

The popularity of puppetry owes much to the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, which Cheryl Henson, daughter of Muppets' creator Jim Henson started in 1992 to promote puppetry in the United States, says Mr. Bell. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly attributed the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater to Jim Henson.]

The nostalgic factor

More adults are accepting puppetry as a viable art form because more than a generation has grown up with Henson's puppets on "Sesame Street," Ms. Arcerio says. "It's that nostalgic aspect," she says. "Sometimes we want things that hark back to a more innocent time."

The popularity of puppets may also reflect a shift in our aesthetics. "The experience of watching puppets is close to watching animated films," says Lee Breuer, the writer and director of Mabou Mines, an avant-garde theater company in New York.

Given the popularity of computer animation and video games, he says he's not surprised that puppets are attracting growing audiences and media attention. People are tired of realism, Mr. Breuer speculates. They're developing "a more cartooned idea about what's real," he says. Just look at "The Simpsons." It appeals to an adult audience for its cynical take on family life.

In the case of "Avenue Q," no topic is off-limits or taboo for these mouth puppets, which are manipulated by at least one actor. On stage, the puppets struggle with identity, sexuality, and existential crises.

Princeton, a dapper, collegiate-type puppet in argyle knit, strives to identify his life's purpose. Meanwhile, he takes a shine to his earnest, fresh-faced neighbor, Kate Monster. Among the issues the two confront include racism, homosexuality, credit-card debt, homelessness, depression, unemployment, betrayal, flatulence, and schadenfreude - the pleasure people take in other people's suffering. Oh, and for the record: It turns out Ms. Monster's life isn't so bad after all.

Even though puppets are typically just dolls attached to strings, they can pack an emotional wallop - as anyone who's seen "Pinocchio" or heard Kermit the Frog singing "Bein' Green" can attest. "A puppet is like a blank screen that we project our feelings on," says Oskar Eustis, director of "The Long Christmas Ride Home," a collaboration between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel and puppeteer Basil Twist.

In "Avenue Q," when Rod, a gay puppet, wakes up from a fantasy sequence only to realize his roommate is not, in fact, in love with him, the audience groans sympathetically. Later, when Kate Monster finds herself alone at the top of the Empire State Building waiting for Princeton, the audience members recall the heartbreak of being jilted for a more attractive lover.

For years, puppets also have fearlessly taken on political causes. The Bread & Puppet Theater, established in 1963, has battled such issues as rents, rats, and the Vietnam War. More recently, "puppetistas," as they call themselves, protested the war in Iraq.

From Japanese to shadow puppets

Whether they're addressing social issues or matters of the heart, puppets come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. "It's such a varied world," says Breuer of the puppet scene. Some puppets are Bunraku, a special style of Japanese puppet theater in which each of the puppets is manipulated by three people but only the face of the principal puppeteer is visible; others are shadow puppets.

Puppets are also constructed out of any number of things, including foam rubber, porcelain dolls, or papier-mâché. But one thing's for sure: Puppets appeal to the child in everyone, Breuer says.

That can be seen in New York's Central Park, where the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre has been performing children's marionette shows for more than 50 years. While the fairy tales are a far cry from cutting-edge theater, they consistently attract toddlers. But children aren't the only ones watching witches and geese fly across the stage.

"We're seeing a lot more adults without children," says Pat Palinkas, office manager.

But on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Michael Goldman, a medical student, is the lone, unsupervised adult at the matinee showing of "Hansel and Gretel." When asked what brings him to the performance, Mr. Goldman answers sheepishly that he hasn't spent much time in the park and he's never seen a marionette show before. Besides, he adds, "I figured it was age appropriate."

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