This show is weird. Really weird. It is bookended by an analysis of the depth to Kermit as a concept: the puppet, the actor, the puppet as an actor, and so on. The script demonstrates a really respectful consideration of the importance of Kermit and The Muppets as cultural institutions, but incisively addresses the significance and responsibility of playing Kermit.
Miles Blanch plays Steve Whitmire, the successor to Jim Henson, originator of Kermit the Frog. He is despondent, recently sacked by the Disney Corporation although chosen to be Henson’s replacement, and having honoured that role for nearly 30 years, without the same high personal profile and now accused of being difficult. Kermit features both as a puppet operated by Blanch and in a human form as the character of the frog, played by Charlie Sharpe. But would he exist in the way we know him without Whitmire’s input?
There is no pretence at reality. Neither of the actors attempts to portray an American. We are invited into an unsettling space where Kermit exists in multiple forms. Within the production there is a scene of the actors – now playing their real-world selves – scripting the play itself. This alienation calls to mind Brecht’s ‘Verfremdungseffekt’. Later there’s a touch of Barthes’ Death of the Author, which challenges ideas of intellectual ownership, and I appreciated the opportunity to engage with these kinds of concepts.
I thoroughly enjoyed the use of puppetry throughout. Although the manipulation of Kermit in puppet form was somewhat rough around the edges, I loved the physicality of the puppet as an extension of the actor. Steve is interrogated as to whether he can physically distance himself from his character. He questions his own value outside of Kermit. Watching puppet Kermit eat real cereal and bite at his puppeteer brought me great joy, yet it raised interesting themes regarding the puppeteer: Steve is subservient to Kermit, cleaning away his crumbs and supporting his career, and becomes increasingly de-personalised as a result.
Smeared with green body paint and donning dinosaur slippers, anthropomorphic Kermit certainly falls under the umbrella of ‘weird’. Initially, I was taken aback by the seemingly slap-dash frog costume, however this was addressed in the production and created an alienating effect which added depth to questions of multidimensionality in both individuals and characters. This version of Kermit serves as a voice of reason to Steve, which is in itself bizarre – good advice rarely comes from those slathered in green paste. The identity of the three characters exists in a state of fluid boundaries, and the combination of high-concept content with cheesy frog puns was an effective commentary on the fiction/reality clash of Whitmire’s predicament. Was he difficult, or was he simply committed to upholding the legacy of Henson’s Kermit?
A particular highlight for me came at the point of Steve’s greatest despair, where he is operating puppets using both hands. To demonstrate the absurdity of Steve (the man using Kermit the puppet) ‘being’ Kermit, human Kermit produces a puppet modelled after Steve. Steve comes to wear both while trying to hammer a nail into a wall. The hilarious absurdity of handling tools using felted mouths combined with the frantic nature of Steve’s breakdown epitomises the show’s ability to oscillate between comedic and existential.
While the production is conceptually very engaging and extremely funny, it has some room for fine-tuning. Lighting and costume could use some polishing, but this could well be attributed to the show being early in its run. This is nonetheless a very entertaining, thoughtful, and surprisingly cerebral production, and a touching tribute to Steve Whitmire’s devotion to the Kermit character.
Written by: Charlie Sharpe
Directed by: Selwin Hulme-Teague
I, Kermit plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 09 July 2022 Further information and bookings can be found here.