Henson Alternative may want to bill Stuffed and Unstrung as an uncensored "puppets gone wild" cross between Avenue Q and Whose Line Is It Anyway?--and, admittedly, it is. But those distracted by the youthfully-skewing Twitter animations during intermission, or by the beers sold in the aisles, or all the merchandising opportunities, are missing the true diamond in the rough, crass, and generally hilarious skits. Emcee Patrick Bristow even says as much in his introduction (though this may be lost given his own Red Bull-driven puppetish behavior): you see, Stuffed and Unstrung is two shows in one. There's the potty-mouthed performance being filmed and projected to either side of the stage, but then there's also the sweet, romantic glimpse beneath the curtain (the camera, in this case): the comedians themselves, exposed for the romantic puppeteers they are.
Stuffed and Unstrung isn't just a collection of fifteen improvisatory games--like the puppets, it is more than the sum of its parts. Instead, it is a love song to the genre, akin to Jay Johnston's The Two and Only, which featured expert ventriloquism as a means of telling a deeper story. Here, Brian Henson (who you may or not see on any given night--there's a rotating cast) uses puppetry to show the evolution of the genre, beginning--appropriately enough--with the hypothetical origins of the art: Neanderthals coping with mortality by crudely manipulating the corpse of an enemy. Mixed in with the skits are precise re-enactments of classic Jim Henson and Frank Oz skits, like 1956's "I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face" and 1965's "Java," along with demonstrations of special effects (similar to the looping technology solo musicians use, only with video) and of the "future" that is digital puppetry (demonstrated this evening by the talented Allan Trautman). As for the improv, it's nothing new, but it's distinctly more charming with puppets, perhaps because of the perversion of our expectations. (For instance, this night featured the superb Leslie Carrara-Rudolph as a groundhog giving a lecture on the fine art of pimping. Caught having to justify a random slide of a weird outfit: "This ain't Oktoberfest, this is Bitchfest.")
Though there's no way to guarantee the quality of any given night, Stuffed and Unstrung is diverse enough, both in its games and its puppeteering, that the two hours fly right by. There's even some audience interaction, including a skit that emphasizes just how talented the Henson crew is, and goes a long way to explain the lasting appeal of the Muppets. Hell, it's a blast just to look at all the diverse and comical characters--roughly eighty in all--that proudly hang on the wall: aliens that only speak a word at a time, bad bunnies, grossly expressive hot dogs, etc. At the same time, it's a thrill to find that the finale--a reprise of their original intro song "Puppet Up"--is just as entertaining done with literal hand-puppets (no strings attached) as it is when those hands are masked by one-tusked warthogs and myopic turtles. There's a reason you won't find Statler and Waldorf at this show: they know they'd have nothing bad to say.