Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg actress has her hands full in raunchy puppet musical

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Winnipeg actress Paula Potosky spent last August spreading warmth and good cheer at Rainbow Stage as the nanny Mary Poppins, who is "practically perfect in every way."

All summer, the sunny-natured former teacher prepared for her first starring role by singing along to the soundtrack, serenading her toddler daughter with such upbeat tunes as A Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cher-ee and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

It's been a lot quieter around Potosky's St. Boniface home as she prepares for her followup principal part as Kate Monster in the considerably more raunchy, boundary-pushing puppet musical Avenue Q, a Winnipeg Studio Theatre revival opening April 3 at RMTC Warehouse.

"There wasn't a single song on the CD that I could listen to with my (now four-year-old) daughter present," says Potosky, 33, while chatting in a Warehouse dressing room during a rehearsal break. "She's met Kate Monster but she won't be coming to the show. It's not for kids."

Not with a bawdy song list that includes The Internet Is for Porn, You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love) and Everyone's a Little Bit Racist. Avenue Q, an R-rated version of Sesame Street, won the 2004 Tony Award for best musical. The potty-mouthed show, created by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty, follows recent college graduate Princeton as he tries to figure out his purpose in life. On his puppet journey of self-discovery, he meets, among others, horny Trekkie Monster, broke former child actor Gary Coleman and an aspiring kindergarten teacher named Kate Monster.

For Potosky, it's a huge leap from portraying the saccharine Mary Poppins to the salty "person of fur" Kate Monster, who drunkenly gets it on with Princeton in the show's notorious puppet sex scene.

"Mary Poppins and Kate Monster are both Type A personalities who know what they want and go for it," she says. "Kate makes bad decisions. She is flawed, which is nice, because my last character was flawless."

Aaron Hutton, who plays every-puppet Princeton, says it was weird whooping it up with the woman who was Mary Poppins. While the nudity is restricted to the puppet variety, the scene is still revealing for its participants.

"I remember the first day staging puppet sex, I said to her, 'We are going to learn a lot about each other,'" recalls Hutton, 25, who also performed in Mary Poppins in 2013. "It's the puppets doing it, but it's us making the noises. Over the last few weeks, we have found out what we like and don't like when it comes to intimacy."

The cast has also faced the urgency to quickly morph into quadruple threats. It wasn't enough to sing, dance and act, as is required in most musicals -- they have to do it while animating a puppet. The actors appear dressed in black side-by-side with their stringless friends, whom they must move with in tandem.

"It looks easy, but it's not easy," says Potosky. "Just to get the synchronicity of the lips to line up is extremely difficult."

The job has become a two-headed monster for the actors. During rehearsals, they have taken their puppets home to foster familiarity and physical stamina in the hopes of becoming one with their stage alter-egos.

"You also have to build up a relationship with this piece of felt, as funny as that sounds," says Hutton, who wears Princeton throughout the interview. "It has sort of taken over my life. My mannerisms have been transformed into Princeton."

Potosky feels she is an extension of Kate Monster.

"When I am in a zone with her, I feel I'm coming from her," she says. "She's leading the way and I'm following her."

One of the prime objectives of rehearsals is to make the performers feel as if it's second nature to wear puppets on their hands. However, they have discovered there's such a thing as being too successful.

"Now I have trouble letting go of Kate," Potosky says. "It takes me a while to ditch the voice and stop moving my hand when I don't have my puppet. It's become automatic to articulate my words with my hand. I do that all the time now."

An Avenue Q marketing slogan promises a story that is 'just like your life, only funnier.' Both Hutton, who won the Rose Bowl at the 2011 Winnipeg Music Festival, and Potosky, who won the Tudor Bowl at the same event in 2000, personally relate to the angst faced by university grads trying to find their way.

"I'm glad I got cast in this show, because I can find the truth in Princeton," says Hutton, who is originally from Minnedosa and remembers how intimidating it was to come to Winnipeg at 18 to study at the University of Manitoba. "After I graduated, I was working in a bakery, singing and dancing on the side. Starting out wasn't as easy as I thought. I had to light a fire under myself or I would still be working in that bakery."

Potosky has more in common with Kate Monster than the umbrella-flying Mary Poppins.

"A lot of stuff that comes out of this show is funny because it's true," she says. "A lot of it is unsavoury, but it's still true. Everyone is a little bit racist. We all make judgments based on race, like the song says."

Potosky will follow Kate Monster by playing the provocatively named character Lick Me Bite Me in The Producers, which being revived by Rainbow Stage in July.

Shaking her head, she says, "My daughter is not going to be able to see that one, either."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2014 C7

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