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Arts & Music

Henson Alternative brings adults-only puppet show to St. Petersburg

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: April 17, 2013 at 06:26 PM

At last, there is a puppet show for grown-ups. From the folks who gave us the Muppets comes “Stuffed and Unstrung,” an improvisational comedy romp with “puppets behaving badly.”

Created by Brian Henson, son the late Muppet master Jim Henson, and actor Patrick Bristow, “Stuffed and Unstrung,” plays the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

The producers and presenters make it clear that this is not a show for kids.

“We’re not smutty or vulgar but we do lean toward naughty, irreverent and, as Brian Henson likes to say, intelligent non-sense’,” says Bristow, a veteran of numerous TV comedies and dramas who may be best remembered from ABC’s “Ellen,” which starred Ellen DeGeneres.

“The audience gets involved and they will tell us how far when, where to set the line,” he says. “We sometimes tease the line and cross over it.”

Bristow, who runs an improvisational workshop in Los Angeles, teamed up with Henson about seven years ago when the puppeteer wanted his staff to get some improv training. Classes with Bristow lead to a full-blown production that has toured comedy festivals and had good run off-Broadway.

For 90 minutes, five puppeteers perform on stage with an assortment of “miscreant puppets” while Bristow serves as host and a sort-of traffic cop. He sets up the comedy bits, fields suggestions from the audience and cuts off the skit when he feels it has run its course.

“We get some wild and surprising suggestions from the audience,” he says, recalling a guy who kept shouting “moonshine” until Bristow gave in and put the challenge to the cast.

There are 80 puppets available on stage but not all of them make into a show. There’s Aardvark, Armadillo, the three Bad Bunnies, Bear, Warthog and Beaver, as well as, assorted humans, aliens, monsters, monkeys and weasels.

“For some reason the Hot Dogs” (group of talking wieners) have a following,” says Bristow.

Please note: There are no Muppets.

“That is a brand name that belongs to certain set of characters that the Hensons created,” says Bristow. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the other Muppets now work for Disney and on “Sesame Street.”

This production is from Henson Alternative which is developing comedy for a grown-up audience.

Few people have seen how puppeteers manipulate these type of puppets so that’s an added attraction. “We have two shows in one,” says Bristow. “You can watch the puppets and enjoy what they are doing and then look beneath them and see the craziness that goes on with the puppeteers.”

Bristow says the late Jim Henson had “an irreverent streak that was a mile wide” and his Muppets were always sophisticated. Brian Henson has said that his father was always doing puppetry for adults.

During the show, there are two skits that date back to the earliest days of the Muppets. The skits were first performed by Henson's parents and their early collaborator Frank Oz. Brian Henson’s mother, Jane, who performed in one of the skits, died April 2 at age 79.

“That makes this performance a bittersweet experience but it also pays tribute to her,” says Bristow.

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