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Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

The whites of his eyes are made with Frosty spoons. His teeth are carved makeup sponges. His body is a flowing poncho of burnt orange fur.

Think Cookie Monster. This puppet is as real as that.

Then, fast forward until you have a 20-something Trekkie monster puppet who has lost interest in Star Trek in favor of an obsession for Internet porn.

Now you have just one of about a dozen freshly made puppets that will star in "Avenue Q," a Tony-winning play that opens Friday at the Lord Leebrick Theatre in Eugene.

Five volunteers stitched steadily on Saturday, rushing to meet a 3 p.m. deadline today for technical rehearsals of the full length, adult play.

Each puppet character has three, four or six clones - each with different dress - because puppets don't do between-scene costume changes.

Take Kate Monster. One clone is dressed in a modest pink shirt, another in wedding clothes - and in a third, she's naked for the R-rated scene at the end of the first act.

What kind of a show is this anyway?

It is, by turns, a reverent and raunchy rendering of "Sesame Street" for 30- and 40-somethings who were raised on the values and sensibilities of the Children's Television Workshop.

"Avenue Q" was initially created as a series of vignettes about coming of age in New York set to songs such as "What do you do with a B.A. in English?" and "There is life outside your apartment."

But Coos Bay native and UO graduate Jeff Whitty - who lives in Manhattan - animated the characters with dialogue and a story arc that has "stealthy emotional resonance," to quote an enthusiastic New York Times writer.

"The story is what makes you care about Princeton and Kate Monster," said David Mort, the Lord Leebrick employee who's leading a band of volunteer puppet makers.

The resulting play took the theater world by surprise in 2004, when "Avenue Q" took home three Tony awards for best story, best music and lyrics, and best overall musical, trumping "Wicked. ? And New York theatergoers are still queuing up for the show.

A touring version of "Avenue Q" was staged at the Hult Center 1 1/2 years ago, but Mort said that shouldn't put a dent in Lord Leebrick ticket sales. Lord Leebrick tickets will be significantly cheaper, he said, $10-$18, with the lowest prices for seniors and people under age 25.

The puppet makers have worked past midnight repeatedly as they raced to finish the last of the puppets.

By Saturday afternoon, they had only one of six "Princeton" puppets completed - and Princeton is the play's main character.

The puppet makers were working in a messy back room at the Old Tango Center on Broadway, which Lord Leebrick owns. Needles, foam and fabric swaths were everywhere. The indoor-outdoor carpet is coated with "monster" hair. Foam arms, hands and bodies were piled in a corner.

It's a magnificent thing, puppet maker Lana Blair mused, watching a trunk full of cloths gather into a humanish character.

"You get really attached," she said.

In the evenings, while the puppet makers sewed, the cast rehearsed in an adjacent room at the old Tango Center, putting some of the finished puppets on their arms and bringing them to life.

"I felt like a proud mom," said Blair, who otherwise works as a Section 8 housing intake coordinator. "I'm excited to see my kids on stage."

But there's danger when a puppet maker gets too attached, Mort said. Some makers resist giving them up to the actors. He even surprised himself with the depth of his emotional attachment to the puppets.

At a recent meeting at the playhouse, the company realized the back stage would be crowded with 31 puppets and all the cast.

"Why don't we just throw (the puppets) on wire racks?" somebody suggested.

"Why don't you just burn them to the ground now," Mort said, surprised by his own tone of indignation.

But an emotional response to their creations is what the puppet makers are looking for.

They shape the puppets' foam heads and bodies into familiar silhouettes. Some of them echo beloved Muppets, such as Bert and Ernie.

They give the sweetest characters wide blue eyes. The porn addict gets bags under his eyes. Nicky, described as a good hearted slacker, has wild black hair except for the clone made for the wedding scene, which has its hair slicked awkwardly down.

"People have to absolutely connect to those characters," Mort said.

Mort is insistent that the details be just right. He wanted Trekkie Monster to have wide whites for his eyes - which he decided could only come from the inverted bowl of a Frosty spoon.

"I had to eat six Frostys," Mort said.

"The sacrifice you make for your art, David, is truly inspiring," Blair said.


Opens: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Lord Leebrick Theater, 540 Charnelton St.

Information: or (541) 465-1506
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Title Annotation:Local News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 11, 2011
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