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OCT's 'Avenue Q' racy but fun

Puppetry, plain talkin’ and porn — that’s “Avenue Q.” Well, sort of.

“Avenue Q,” the 2004 Tony triple-crown winner now playing at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, is a puppet show for adults inspired by the childlike naivete of “Sesame Street,” using humor and satire to depict an adult despair, confusion and isolation.

After finishing college, Princeton moves into a New York apartment managed by Gary Coleman. Princeton meets a full cadre of folks, including a promiscuous woman and a closeted gay man, and falls in love as he finds his purpose in life. The autobiographical story is that of the concept developers, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and reflects the angst of a generation raised to be happy and well-adjusted only to find that life can be pretty miserable at times.

Three humans, four puppeteers and nine puppets make up the cast of “Avenue Q,” all practiced in or designed with that wide-eyed, crazy-smile face of cartoon perfect.

“Sesame Street” premiered on PBS in 1969 and is one of television’s longest-running children’s educational programs. Generations of adults will remember The Muppets and “Sesame Street’s” familiar, soothing reassurance, humor and song.

In “Avenue Q,” those simple scores, played by Karl Iverson on piano and Chelsea Villanueva on woodwinds, are twisted to bed songs such as “It Sucks to be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.” Inspired by Cookie Monster’s counting lessons, Trekkie counts down to intermission with slices of Dick Hay Pie.

Jack O’Brien and Maggie Randolph debut on the Oregon Cabaret Theatre stage, handling several puppets, including the leads, Princeton and Kate Monster. O’Brien and Randolph mimic the expressions and voices of the two puppets with exaggerated facial contortions and physical acting that includes loud, mimicked sexual acts in both traditional and creative positions. Both also voice puppets held by others, in trick scenes where O’Brien and Randolph conceal their faces and seemingly throw their voices.

The three humans in the cast are Alex Boyles in the role of Brian, Catherine Landetta as Brian’s nutty, Japanese fiancé, Christmas Eve, and Asha Brownie-Gordan as Gary Coleman, clothed in overalls, work boots and a leather tool belt. The puppets and monsters are all as human as the humans, living together on Avenue Q and expressing a complex naiveté, subtle despair and warped life view.

Boyles is easy going and relaxed as Brian, with a ready smile and Mr. Rogers’ friendliness. His is the puppet ready for adventure with a love and enthusiasm for life, barely restrained by Landetta. The Gary Coleman character is an odd note, a role well filled by Brownie-Gordan, who plays that real-life child actor who grew up to sue his parents. Brownie-Gordan’s sideways wink is timed just right.

Eric Solis is an experienced, ambidextrous puppeteer who voices the double-handed puppets Trekkie (a take-off on Cookie Monster who loves porn rather than cookies) and Nicky (a take-off on Ernie). Solis is paired with Sierra Wells to operate Nicky; Wells is a delight to watch, an expressive mime to Solis’ voicing. Solis and Wells team up again as the mischievously comical Bad Idea Bears, the voices in the back of one’s head that seek destruction and chaos.

The Oregon Cabaret Theatre set is vertical and the construction of that old New York apartment fills the space nicely. The façade looks like brick, there’s pigeon poop and graffiti, and it is nicely weathered. The set is strong and built to manage several levels of action as puppets and humans lean out of windows and doors and panels serve as broadcast television screens.

“Avenue Q” is complicated but not compromised by the effort of manipulating two- and three-pound puppets for a two-hour production. Director Galloway Stevens brought in puppeteering consultant Lexy Fridell to workshop the show. “She (Fridell) told the cast in the first few days of rehearsal to take photographs of their biceps and compare them at the end of the run,” Stevens said with a grin.

“Avenue Q” continues in the Oregon Cabaret Theatre through Sept. 9, with weekend matinee performances and evening performances Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays. The show contains mature content and strong language. For more information and to make reservations, visit www.TheOregonCabaret.com.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Photo by Kim BuddMaggie Randolph makes her Oregon Cabaret Theatre debut in "Avenue Q,"{ } playing at OCT through Sept. 9.