Comedy is often the vehicle that inspires people to have crucial conversations about important issues.
Through the month of June, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is relying on the humor and outspokenness of foul-mouthed puppets to bolster dialogue about racism, sexuality, and almost every aspect of the human experience.
From the moment you step off the elevator and walk toward the Rep’s third floor production space, laughter is echoing through the hallways. Some of the puppeteers and actors who make up the cast of “Avenue Q” are meeting with their director, Robert Kolby Harper.
“If you have a puppet, we can step back from ourselves and not take things quite so seriously…because you’re looking at an image that reminds you of your childhood and your innocence,” said Harper.
Harper admits the fuzzy and funny characters in the production help the audience digest heavier themes.
“This show is so masterful in creating a safe distance so the audience can laugh at themselves, and laugh at the circumstances in the musical,” Harper said.
Leah Monzillo from Florida plays Mrs. T and Bad Idea Bear. Monzillo says Avenue Q is about more than just puppets that curse and have sex. She says so many of scenes deal with the daily experiences of real people.
“When I first saw the show, I actually found myself really relating to a lot of the characters,” Monzillo said. “In most stories, the princess gets the guy she wants and everything is perfect, but [on Avenue Q] there’s rejection and everyone faces that in real life.”
Ethan Paulini from Massachusetts is the puppeteer for Nicky and Trekkie.
“All the characters seem to be equal parts lovable and equal parts flawed,” said Paulini.
Even though the characters are clearly defined by their over-the-top antics, Paulini says it’s refreshing to be in a musical that doesn’t put players into stereotypical boxes.
“Sometimes people really own-up to their flaws and embrace them,” said Paulini. “You know, there is a line where they say ‘Well, Christmas Eve you’re racist too.’ And her response is ‘I know!’ Where as, all the other characters deny it until they think about it and they say ‘Oh, yeah!’
Bailey Means from Kansas plays the roles of Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut.
“My hope is that people can just come [to the show] and not take themselves so seriously for two hours and just sit there and laugh, because it is funny,” said Means.
Bailey Means says Avenue Q is simply feel good theater.
“No matter what’s going on in your life, I just want people to come, watch the show, and have a good time,” Means said.
“There is a lot of heart to the show and there’s a sense of community among these people on Avenue Q,” said Will Holly, an actor from Florida who plays Princeton a recent college grad who moves into a shabby New York apartment on Avenue Q.
Holly is also the puppeteer for the Rod character. He says there were so many nuances and movements the cast had to learn to add a sense of realism to the interactions among the puppets.
“Coming into this process, it felt so daunting,” said Holly. “When you’re doing a scene, you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and looking at the puppet… trying to make sure it’s communicating correctly with the facial expressions. You also have to make sure you’re animating all the syllables correctly and then you’re moving and your hand is hurting … so it’s tough and it’s not as easy as it looks.”
Amid all the jokes and laughter, director Robert Kolby Harper says Avenue Q has a simple message for audiences.
“Everything is temporary… the good and the bad so appreciate what’s right in front of you. And I think that if more people did that they would find a much happier community,” Harper said.
“Avenue Q” is one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history and has won a Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of the puppet musical runs from June 7th through June 30th.