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Talk to the hand

Spewing insults and performing love scenes, puppets are acting up for an older crowd

The tune is called "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)," and Kate Monster and Princeton are in the throes of proving that point.

On a Broadway stage.

Buck naked.

And the audience is loving it.

No, Times Square hasn't returned to its raunchy, sexed-up past. Kate is made of tan faux fur, and Princeton sports skin of orange felt. They're part of a gaggle of fornicating, blaspheming, liquor-swilling puppets that have turned the musical "Avenue Q" into a critical and popular hit. Clearly we're not on "Sesame Street" anymore.

The members of the "Avenue Q" crew aren't the only puppets clamoring for adult attention. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a rubberized regular on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," releases his first CD later this month. The gang from the Comedy Central series "Crank Yankers," which pairs prank calls with full-frontal puppet nudity, started its third season last month. The Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline, one of the oldest puppet venues in the country, has spent the past three years expanding its

programming for the 18-and-older crowd. For many, breathing life into inanimate objects is an art reserved for the "Romper Room" set. But puppets have been having their way with mature audiences worldwide for centuries. "It's only recently that puppetry has been defined as children's entertainment," says John Bell, a puppeteer and assistant professor of performing arts at Emerson College.

The history reaches back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, Bell writes in his 2000 book, "Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History." Masks and other forms of puppetry have found their way into religious rituals. Puppeteers used the creatures to criticize the government during the Russian Revolution.

On these shores, Igor Stravinsky spellbound audiences with a puppet opera at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1936. From the 1920s to the 1970s, Edgar Bergen entertained radio and later television and film viewers with his tiny wooden friend, Charlie McCarthy. Even as puppets were co-opted by "Sesame Street" in the 1960s to teach children their ABCs and 1-2-3s, the Bread & Puppet Theater was using them to make political statements.

This history hasn't stopped adult puppetry from retaining the aura of something fresh and new. Theatergoers expressed surprise in 1997 when "The Lion King" emerged on Broadway with its astounding, colorful masks. A similar reaction greeted the 1999 film "Being John Malkovich," which hilariously kicks off with two marionettes getting hot and bothered.

"It's as if puppetry is continually being rediscovered," Bell says.

Credit the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater in New York with at least moving the cycle along. From 1992 to 2000, the festival named after Jim Henson, the co-creator of "Sesame Street," imported an international array of puppeteers to introduce neophytes to puppetry. During the final years of the event, some of these troupes went on national tours to ensnare a wider audience.

"That did more than anything in the world to spread the idea that puppetry is not just for children in this country," says Karen Larsen, artistic director of the Puppet Showplace Theatre.

Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, creators and songwriters of "Avenue Q," are proving that point -- again. The pair have such a close partnership that they finish each other's sentences like an old married couple. So it's surprising to learn that they began writing tunes together only four years ago. In the bowels of the Golden Theatre, where "Avenue Q" is enjoying its Broadway run, they talk about how they came up with their play about the post-college generation finding purpose in life, coming out of the closet, and dealing with racism. And why they used puppets to tell this decidedly human tale.

"Somehow," says Marx, 32, "just having real-life 20-somethings onstage moaning about their lives wouldn't be nearly as entertaining than if you had puppets."

Like Marx and Lopez, the men behind "Crank Yankers" cast

Muppet-like stars because they gave the show a unique visual spin. There's young Hadassah Guberman, who accuses a lingerie shop saleswoman of touching her inappropriately, and Vietnam vet Bircham, who's in search of a dude ranch with a horse strong enough to carry his 800-pound wife. The "Crank Yankers" team considered using actors to reenact the calls but deemed that idea "boring," says Adam Corolla, who co-created the series with Jimmy Kimmel and Daniel Kellison. Animation? "South Park" had already explored that genre's possibilities, and the process made real-life conversations sound as if they had emerged from the mind of a scriptwriter, Corolla says. Fabric-skinned critters speaking four-letter words not commonly heard on the 1950s TV show "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" were the perfect solution.

"It's something that you're not used to seeing, so it makes it entertaining," Corolla says.

Now the show is so popular that comedians Sarah Silverman, Denis Leary, and Wanda Sykes regularly lend their voices to it, and Snoop Dogg and Eminem clamor to be on it.

The raunchy inhabitants of Yankerville and the residents of "Avenue Q" are children's public television characters all grown up. During breaks in the stage action, video monitors flick on to teach the audience such important words as "schadenfreude" and "commitment," the latter of which comes in handy after Princeton and Kate's ardent journey into coupledom. Characters break into song: "If you were gay/ That'd be OK," Nicky croons to his blue-skinned, closeted roommate, Rod. The musical kicks off with a jingle that's as cheerful as the "Sesame Street" theme. But Marx and Lopez downplay that connection.

"We're trying to teach adults out of college in a happy, straightforward way," says Marx. "There are little things that parody `Sesame Street,' but we don't have Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch."

But there are Rod and Nicky, a modern take on Bert and Ernie. Think of Princeton and Kate as carnal versions of Kermit and Miss Piggy. The personalities are new enough to keep lawsuits at bay and familiar enough to take viewers back to a time when Big Bird's words mattered. "People in our generation grew up with [those characters], and we're used to being told lessons by them," says Lopez, 28.

Some of the lessons are emotional ones about acceptance and finding your place. At other times these pint-size personalities draw laughs by pushing acceptable behavior to its limits.

Last season on "Crank Yankers," a puppet version of Snoop Dogg paraded his private parts in front of a pair of fabric-fleshed ladies. And, yes, there are limits to what puppets can expose -- the cable channel blurred the puppet-rapper's genitals.

Kate and Princeton's carnal encounter, following an evening of imbibing Long Island iced teas, also pushes the envelope of propriety. "The Broadway theatergoing audience hasn't seen sex depicted onstage -- ever," says Lopez.

Adds Marx, "It's always arty love [on Broadway]. This isn't love; it's drunks."

The combination of puppets and sex draws howls of laughter from the audience. But Kate and Princeton's lack of legs keep the show from tipping into X-rated territory even as they flop into positions straight out of the Kama Sutra. "It's representational," says Marx. "People are projecting their own dirty minds."

Count on additional projects further spreading the gospel of puppetry this fall. The Oct. 1 revival of "Little Shop of Horrors" on Broadway will introduce the carnivorous plant, Audrey II, and the two men who operate her. Life-size puppets will pretend to be children next month in the off-Broadway production of "The Long Christmas Ride Home," which premiered in Providence in June. Actor Adrien Brody plays a wannabe puppeteer in the indie film "Dummy" screening in New York and Los Angeles.

And in Boston, the Puppet Showplace Theatre introduces increasingly sophisticated material to mature audiences. Director Larsen's passion for the art shows in the way she speaks about the theater's history and the growing interest in the work. Adult puppetry isn't new to the organization. It offered such shows under its founder, Mary Churchill, after it opened in 1974, but those performances dwindled when she died in 1997.

Larsen's first move once she became artistic director in 2000 was to revive puppet slams. This co-

invention of the theater and the Boston Guild of Puppetry inundates audiences with 10 minutes of performance apiece by 10 puppeteers. The material can be comedic or dramatic -- raw outlines of an idea or beautifully constructed finished pieces. Some participants use the time to perform puppet elegies. "It gave people an excuse to start doing some experimenting," says Larsen, "because we'd been seeing this wonderful adult puppet theater in festivals, but we weren't really growing it here in our area."

Slams became so popular with the college and young professional crowd that last year the theater began presenting two shows on those nights to avoid turning people away. Larsen quickly molded a program of longer theatrical performances to lure other adults into the theater's fold. This season, she will produce five shows, including a festival of puppet musicals.

Like the creators of "Avenue Q" and "Crank Yankers," Larsen wants to push puppetry to its artistic edge. In a more high-minded way, of course.

"[There are] some fabulously esoteric shows that I'm not bringing in yet," says Larsen, "because I don't think that people are quite ready for that."

Vanessa E. Jones can be reached at

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