By Jeb Gavin
The thing I most remember about seeing Avenue Q for the first time at the National Theatre was it justified my feeling of terror- I had no idea what to do with my life, and that it might still be OK. Re-watching the Constellation Theatre Company’s performance this past Monday night was an excellent reminder of how, even eight years on, it might still be alright to not know what you want to do, so long as you surround yourself with the right people.
Director Allison Arkell Stockman treats Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s award winning musical with respect though not reverence, mostly because reverence would be an overstep for a show about puppets, their existential crises, and occasional bouts of puppet sex. Likewise, I was impressed by the design team’s work in shrinking the stage and reducing its aspect ratio while still leaving the openness of the street and the many pass-though windows on three levels. The smaller space also meant Rachel Leigh Dolan’s choreography had to be leaner and more judicious, which it was to wonderful effect.
The show is well cast, with Matt Dewberry as Princeton and Katy Carkuff as his opposite, Kate Monster. I think I enjoyed their interactions in musical numbers the best. I did notice there were times when the actors were conveying emotions you’d hoped would come from the puppets they were voicing, a difficulty I chalk up to working with puppets. Even the best puppets just can’t emote adequately for a show which focuses on the friction between subtle and overt. This ended up being a strength in the supporting characters as they worked in a narrower range of emotions. Vaughn Ryan Midder was perfect moving Rod from frustration to wistfulness, and Alex Alferov’s Nicky was great at attempting to be helpful without actually succeeding. I really enjoyed Jenna Berk reinforcing Nicky’s emotions while being his right hand. Her work as a Bad Idea Bear was fun, but seeing her mimic Nicky’s feelings while Alferov gave the character voice was a wonderful touch. Hearkening back to the original cast, Eben K. Logan is superb as Gary Coleman. The character is meant to be so absurd as to polish its own sharp corners, and Logan strikes the right balance between perpetuating what is now an old joke and yet still keeping the character relevant within the play.
I find it oddly difficult to remark upon the play itself. Over a decade in it feels dated- mostly due to brief technological references, but also because I’ve grown as much as the characters. If 2003 Brian is 32 going on 33, he’s now 45, living with Christmas Eve and their three children in Park Slope or out on Long Island. He didn’t sell out and become a consultant- to crib a line from SLC Punk, he bought in. 2003 Princeton is now 35 and still doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life. Except kids in their 20s now trying to identify with Princeton have the past 12 years of watching people muck about in the same pitfalls to draw from. The Millennial fear of turning into Gen X slackers has been subsumed by the nonchalance of our great- great grandparents- a sort of acceptance of struggle for our entire lives.
In this regard, the show is a dour reminder of once having hope, however naïve. But it’s the reversal I find interesting in this most recent production- the sort of willful disregard for more than a decade of stagnation which makes this an outstanding production. You have to be able to laugh at how easy we thought it was going to be to shake off what turned out to be a generational funk. Years on, perhaps it won’t be alright in the end, but you’re still better off surrounding yourself with the right people, which it seems Constellation has accomplished.
Photo courtesy of Constellation Theater, photo by DJ Corey Photography