Puppets for grown ups and Shakespeare on the move

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Heritage Theater Festival’s production of Avenue Q tackles racism, political correctness, homosexuality, and other social issues through candid humor and puppets. Publicity photo Heritage Theater Festival’s production of Avenue Q tackles racism, political correctness, homosexuality, and other social issues through candid humor and puppets. Publicity photo

As the month of August arrives, everything slows down a bit. Outside, we drown in the humid air, dense as an ocean wave pushing against flesh. There’s little to do but laze away in air-conditioning or spend hours floating in the cool waters of a swimming pool. It’s the time of year when I used to haunt the movie theater, its dark and frigid stadia never more appealing. This summer though, two local theater productions provide even better options. Offerings by both the Heritage Theatre Festival and the Hamner Theater offer laugh-filled escapes from the heat.

The Heritage Theatre Festival has been an annual highlight of the UVA arts scene since 1974. Every summer, talented directors, actors, and production staff travel to Charlottesville to create a season of plays. Serving as UVA’s professional theatre, Heritage is led by Artistic Director Bob Chapel, who has been with the festival since 1987. In the course of his career, he has produced more than 200 productions, directed more than 120, and acted in countless others across the country. Chapel also notably provided the genesis for UVA’s Arts Dollars program, which allows students to attend local arts events for no cost.

This year, the festival mixes things up a bit with a season full of musicals, slapstick, and farce. Onstage at the Ruth Caplin Theatre, the production of Avenue Q is already a hit. The play brings back director and choreographer Renee Dobson, who has performed in two and directed five Heritage Theatre Festival productions since 2001. This production of Avenue Q features a live band, award-winning script, and plenty of puppets. But don’t think for a moment that it’s kid-friendly.

Rather, Avenue Q is foul-mouthed in a way that’s endearingly honest and entertaining—but certainly only for adults. The play spent years on Broadway and won the rare Tony Triple Crown (Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book). Based on a book by Jeff Whitty, it’s a coming-of-age story that depicts a recent college graduate’s fervor and frustrations as he moves to New York City and struggles to find meaning or purpose in life. Hilarious, right? Actually, yes. It certainly doesn’t disappoint on the laughs.

But wait, where do the puppets come in? Since the narrative makes no distinction between characters played by humans and those that are puppets, the play requires a suspension of disbelief. Dobson relates that “The show makes you think about what some of your favorite childhood characters might be like when they get older. There is something about puppets that just takes you back to your childhood.” These puppets have sex though, and aren’t afraid to be caught cussing. Described by The New Yorker as a “combination of ‘The Real World’ and ‘Sesame Street,’” Avenue Q is the extra serving of satire that your summer needs. Catch a performance of it a through August 2.

If you’re looking for something a bit more family-friendly, the Hamner Theater Summer Shakespeare Tour returns this year to present a local production of Much Ado About Nothing. In the hopes of bringing the Bard to as many people as possible, the Hamner opted to perform in public parks this year—a change from winery venues in the past two years. On afternoons and evenings in August, you can enjoy free performances of the play in Tonsler, Belmont, and Washington Parks.

A funny and accessible work, Much Ado About Nothing offers a great way to rid children—or reluctant spouses—of Shakespeare fears. The play was written in prose and provides an easy-to-follow narrative. Further, it’s on the more upbeat end of Shakespeare’s spectrum, ending with happy reunions and marriages rather than deaths. There are plenty of eavesdroppers, schemes, and disguises along the way too, mixed with hilarious hijinks aplenty.

Co-directed by mother-daughter team Carol and Boomie Pedersen, this production also asks the audience to suspend disbelief—albeit in a different way than is required by Avenue Q. To maintain the mobility and flexibility required for outdoor, transitory performances, this Much Ado About Nothing set includes little more than a clothesline. It’s a well-conceived accommodation, allowing the play’s narrative to be situated in the front garden of the house where the characters are gathered.

Though Boomie was born and raised in New York City, she’s made her home in Charlottesville since 1995 and co-founded the nonprofit Hamner Theater a decade after that. She currently serves as the theater’s artistic and managing director. The actors are all from the Charlottesville area and local musician Tanya Kae Man will performs original music alongside members of the cast. It’s a homegrown production that provides a great excuse to enjoy a cool summer evening outside.

So, pack a picnic, unfurl a blanket, and let the lightning bugs keep you company during a performance—or two—of Much Ado About Nothing. For info visit www.hamnertheater.com.

Where do you escape the summer heat? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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