For nearly 30 years, Paul Mesner Puppets (now known as Mesner Puppet Theater) has produced puppet shows based on fairy tales and contemporary children stories, from Sleeping Beauty to The Stinky Cheese Man. They're mostly aimed at kids, with sly humor for adults, too.
But, in the last few years at the Kansas City Fringe Festival, the puppeteers have been branching out into more risqué material — of course, for adults.
On a recent weekday morning, artistic director Paul Mesner leaned in for a closer look at an unfinished puppet. "I think she needs beads — white, Marge Simpson pearls," he suggested.
Inside Mesner's Hyde Park studio, near the corner of Linwood and Troost Avenue, his team builds the puppets and the scenery for each production.
"We’re used to kids. That’s what we’re used to, and that’s what we know. So adults are not a comfort zone for us, it’s scary as hell," Mesner says, with a laugh. "For me, at least."
For the third year in a row, Mesner Puppet Theater is doing Fringe, with adults as the intended audience. This year's title: Ten Things You Really Shouldn’t Do With Puppets. They'll count down during the show, starting with the number 10: Don't take your puppet on a date. It's a skit inspired by a puppeteer with a puppet as a constant companion.
Associate artistic director Mike Horner says the challenge is to get beyond the novelty or the easy laughs.
"Have the puppet pick its nose, or have a puppet say a bad word. That’s kind of the go-to, 'Ha, ha, the cute little puppet is saying something naughty,'" says Horner. "And we like to touch on that, but not that be just the joke."
Horner says much of the material in the show draws on current events. "It is fun to build puppets that are topical," he says. "Often, the puppets we make for our shows need to be evergreen ... but to do something that might only have a shelf life of six months that’s fun to do that as a change."
But Mesner says it's risky to include some of these stories, such as the Fox News sexual harassment scandal, in this era of the very short news cycle.
"We’re secretly hoping that Roger Ailes and Gretchen Carlson keep talking about their case," Mesner says, "because we’ve built a pretty good skit around the lawsuit she filed." (Ailes resigned Thursday amidst the allegations and lawsuit.)
Presidential politics will play out in puppet form, with one of the nominees as a parrot. And variations on familiar jokes crop up, such as the one about unlikely characters, in this case, a rabbi and a priest, who walk into a bar.
Interns, like Elizabeth McManus, helped shape the production.
McManus studied costume design at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and this summer marked her first experience with puppetry. McManus says she's tempered some of the humor.
"A lot of the input that I put into is taking it back, and bringing it back to the current time and making sure it's not too raunchy," McManus says. "And so bringing it back is probably one of the biggest jobs I’ve had so far."
Paul Mesner says this feedback, from a younger generation, has been critical. With more than three decades as a puppeteer, he knows his kid audience well, but the needs of an adult audience are still a little undefined.
"We're doing humor we would never do in our regular shows," says Mesner. "For us, it’s a challenge of what actually is adult humor."
And if some of these jokes don’t land, Mesner says they’ll continue to refine it — with hopes of building a solid adult show to take on the road. For now, they’ll be performing it for audiences — on the Fringe.
Mesner Puppet Theater presents 'Ten Things You Really Shouldn't Do With Puppets,' July 23 - July 30, Mesner Studio, 1006 Linwood Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri. The production is one of more than 400 performances and exhibits in this year's Kansas City Fringe Festival, which runs through July 31.