The warning on the Avenue Q poster is the strangest you’re ever likely to come across: Full Puppet Nudity. It’s not a joke. Nor does it fully prepare you for what you’ll see. There is full puppet-on-puppet action in this piece.
“Derek’s a natural at puppet sex,” says Vanessa Moyen of her co-star and fellow Charleston Stage Resident Acting Company member Derek T. Pickens. “We got in the bed and just sorta went at it.” The two actors can’t talk about that scene, which they have rehearsed for weeks, without blushing, and I can’t ask them about it without laughing.
Because I, like much of the theatergoing audience since 2004, know exactly what’s coming. Avenue Q, which opens at the Dock Street Theatre on Feb. 10. Avenue Q, the 2004 Tony Award winner for Best Musical. Avenue Q, the adult-friendly puppet musical that has taken the world by storm.
The cast and crew are Charleston Stage’s own, except for New York transplant Maya Naff, who plays Christmas Eve. The other guests of the show are the puppets themselves, who Charleston Stage rented from the company that handles the Broadway tour. Charleston Stage was one of the first regional theaters to get the rights to the hit show, but while many have created their own puppets from scratch, director Marybeth Clark decided to rent the official puppets, because they are closer to the iconic Sesame Street characters they are based on, like Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster.
Clark, Moyen, and Pickens all agree that the hardest part of rehearsal was blocking with the puppets. Not only did the cast have to learn to operate them, but they also had to keep them moving during scenes. “The hardest part is making them look alive even when they aren’t talking,” says Moyen, who plays puppets Kate Monster and Lucy. “We practiced breathing and looking around. For musical breaks, I had to teach my puppet to act.” Says Pickens, “Deadening yourself while keeping your puppet alive is really hard.”
The cast includes Josh Harris, who plays Nicky and Trekkie, and Jillian Kuhl, who plays Mrs. T. The non-puppet characters (who have the lightest load, so to speak) are Jackie Kirchhoff, Thywann Scott, and Gabriel Wright. Harris and Kuhl also play the Bad Idea Bears, whom Marybeth Clark says are the hardest to direct in the entire show. Their ridiculous antics were exacerbated by the fact that Clark had no idea who to yell at, the puppets or the actors.
Between the naughty songs, raunchy jokes, and full-on puppet hanky panky, this show is sure to ruffle a few feathers, but if eight years of Broadway success are any indication, Charleston audiences will absolutely eat it up. “No matter how dirty the show is, it’s got such a big heart behind it,” Pickens says.
Michael Smallwood is a local actor who has appeared in local productions like A Behanding in Spokane and Superior Donuts.