Matthew McGee grew up the son of a ventriloquist. He travelled with his family, putting on shadow puppet shows at schools throughout California and attending puppet festivals in the summer. In recent years, McGee has become known around D.C. as an actor, one who particularly excels in physical comedy. So, when Constellation Theatre Company decided to mount a production of the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q, they knew who to turn to.
“He’s been our puppet specialist on this show,” says Constellation’s Allison Arkell Stockman.
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is how difficult puppetry is,” says McGee. “You have to bring that character to life.”
Making things even more challenging, in Avenue Q actors are in plain sight on stage, talking, singing, moving along with their puppets. “I’ve just been so impressed by how the actors have embraced the challenge of puppetry work,” Stockman says. “But they’ve all said, ‘This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done.'”
Avenue Q is about life on a gritty street where both adults and adult puppets struggle to get by. The show, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2003, is affectionately known as “Sesame Street for Adults.” Indeed, in addition to a Trekkie Monster (a nod to Cookie Monster), there’s Nicky and Rod, who reside together in the “Bert and Ernie” mold. Early on, the casual, freewheeling Nicky sings to the button-down Rod, “If you were gay, that’d be okay. I mean ’cause, hey, I’d like you anyway.”
Avenue Q is a huge departure for Constellation, which is known for fanciful yet straight plays. Apart from the increased costs involved with mounting a full-scale musical, Constellation’s biggest reservation was Source Theatre’s relatively small size.
“We’re really limited about what musicals we can do here,” says Stockman. “But Avenue Q doesn’t require many orchestra members and it’s only a 10-person cast.” It also doesn’t feature much in the way of big dance numbers. “There is dance,” says Stockman, “but because they’re puppets, it’s not like West Side Story.” Still, choreographer Rachel Leigh Dolan “has found a lot of lovely moments where both the puppeteer and the puppet are dancing at once,” Stockman notes. “It may not make a lot of logical sense to see the puppeteers doing a kick line, but within this world it does make sense. Those are some of my favorite moments.”
While set in a contemporary urban America, Avenue Q does have a sense of fantasy about it. “The show has really big ideas about finding your purpose, knowing who you are, being honest about yourself, racism being bad, generosity making you feel good,” says Stockman. “All of these sort of simple ideas that are really important to life.”
The show’s message about how ephemeral life is, as conveyed through the final number “For Now,” resonates with Stockman. “Theater artists put work into a show, and then after five weeks, it’s gone. But what it’s really about is living in the moment, and enjoying the moment because it’s all you really ever have.”
And this is a particularly great, even unprecedented, moment for Constellation — as well as those lucky theatergoers who were in-the-know about the show in advance. Before Avenue Q had even opened last month, the show was 70-percent sold. Now? “We’re almost sold out,” Stockman says, noting that seats are available for only a handful of shows over the next few weeks. To address the demand, Constellation is presenting eight shows over a full week as opposed to the usual five over a long weekend. Because Constellation shares the city-owned Source with several other performing arts organizations, it can’t extend the run. Still, Stockman advises people joining the wait list, noting, “though I can’t guarantee they’ll get in, they’ve got a good shot.”
It’s a safe bet Constellation will stage other musicals in the future. And Source has proven to be a fine venue for them. “People who have seen it on Broadway have told me that they really enjoyed it being in such an intimate space,” says Stockman.
For his part, McGee would love to help local theatres put on more shows involving puppets, such as War Horse or The Lion King. “Things that are mainstream that people know about,” he says. “So when you say puppets, people don’t think of something that’s just for kids.”
Avenue Q runs to Nov. 23 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 202-204-7760 or visit constellationtheatre.org.