Just think. If Pee-wee Herman had a computer in 1991, and the internet had existed, he may never have gotten into that big heap of trouble in the theatre! Nearly 20 years later, Pee-wee has learned his lesson…and HAS his own computer. In fact, it’s in his Broadway show.
(Courtesy of Mark Kennedy – Associated Press)
Pee-wee Herman, whose resurrection from scandal is now almost complete, appears to be the same boy-man of old, untouched by time. He’s still in his 1950s-style suit, making the same goofy jokes and he still has the same off-kilter puppet friends he did three decades ago.
But what’s this? What is Sergio the handyman doing at the beginning of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” now at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre? Why, he’s wiring Pee-wee’s Playhouse so the overgrown kid in the bow tie can plug in a computer and surf the Internet.
“Finally, we’re going to be modern!” Pee-wee tells his puppet friends.
The puppets aren’t impressed. Magic Screen, Globey and Conky — for readers not familiar, those are, respectively, a know-it-all machine, a globe with a human face and a crude robot — want to know what a computer can do that they can’t.
“I’m not sure,” says Pee-wee. “But you’re not modern.”
“Pee-wee, nobody’s being modern anymore,” replies Magic Screen. “Modern is antiquated.”
The experiment, of course, leads to disaster, proving the puppets at least partly right: Everything old is new again. That’s something on which Pee-wee — aka Paul Reubens — hangs this incarnation: a hipster reboot of a throwback TV show mashed with the movie series, which were themselves based on a 1981 cult classic stage production. Many of the cast members are the same as they were in the 1980s. The whole point is not appearing modern.
Reubens is virtually unchanged, a now-58-year-old who is still exploring the same fine line between delighting children with an arsenal of wackiness — a chair that talks, a dancing mute bear, a pterodactyl named Pterri — while also working on their parents, one double-entendre at a time.
Sample: “You have a cute package, Pee-wee,” says Mailman Mike.
The plot of this show isn’t very important. (You came expecting to see Pee-wee’s character arc?) But between little vignettes, two themes emerge — Pee-wee’s desire to fly and the unfolding of romance between Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) and Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr).
There are concessions to the modern world, but they mostly take the form of product placement: There are references to The Clapper and the Bedazzler, a ShamWow puppet makes an appearance to hilarious effect and a big section of a Bumpits commercial (“Create Hollywood Hair in Just Minutes”) is aired on a huge screen.
Reubens, also the co-writer, has sly nods to his 1991 arrest for indecent exposure, including a funny bit about his wearing an abstinence ring, and a postcard read aloud from a pen-pal that begins: “Dear Pee-wee, remember me? Lou from prison.”
But mostly Pee-wee is the Pee-wee of old, the way the audience seems to want him. He’s the ring master of a Technicolor children’s world where it’s perfectly natural for clocks to talk and cowboys to stop by with beef jerky. It’s testament to Reubens’ vision that his Pee-wee works on TV, in film and on stage, mixing elements of all.
A big part of why the stage show works isn’t Pee-wee, though. It’s the puppets and David Korins’s set under the direction of Alex Timbers. There are a lot of moving parts here and visual jokes that must be precisely orchestrated: Some of the Basil Twist-led puppets are marionettes — like Pterri — while some are operated by remote control — like Magic Screen — and still others are manipulated from inside the puppet — like Conky. Voices are done from people offstage and Jambi the Genie (John Paragon) spends most of the performance with only his head showing from within a box.
After a while, needy Chairy and arrogant Pterri start to develop real personalities. The same can’t be said for most of the human actors: LaMarr and Sergio (Jesse Garcia) especially don’t seem completely comfortable.
But any critics of this daffy, juvenile show for nostalgia buffs would likely get a typical Pee-wee retort: “I’m rubber, you’re glue — whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!”