Bert and Ernie come alive

Bert is the one with the yellow conehead and the spray of black hair on top. Ernie is orange with a football-shaped head. Everybody knows that. But do they have to be? Is it possible to bring these two iconic characters to life without big, foam costumes? Go see the Children’s Theatre Company’s “Bert & Ernie, Goodnight!” to find out.

Sesame Workshop is notoriously protective of its iconic cast of characters. While Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie and the rest have endorsed an organic cookie or two over the past 40 years, Sesame Workshop — the successor to the Children’s Television Workshop — has always held the reins tightly. ¶ The cast has appeared in oversized versions of their puppet selves onstage in “Sesame Street Live,” produced by Minneapolis-based VEE Corp., since 1980 but has never been interpreted by live actors. ¶ Until now.

The Children’s Theatre Company will open its 2009–2010 season with a “Bert & Ernie, Goodnight,” a live-action production with two seasoned local actors, and not a foam head in sight.

It all started, according to Peter Brosius, CTC’s artistic director, with the 2002 show “A Year With Frog & Toad.” After two live actors took that iconic literary duo to Broadway, relying on smart, subtle characterizations rather than elaborate costumes, Brosius said the phone began to ring.

“There was something in the work of that production that lit a spark,” he said.

That spark led to an invitation from Sesame Workshop to think about how CTC might bring to life the world of Sesame Street.

After considering the whole of the Sesame Street universe, Brosius and his team decided to focus on the two inseparable roommates Bert and Ernie.

“One, they’re humans,” explained Brosius, “Two, they’re a fantastic comic duo that has at its core a relationship of love and respect. The characters are so dear and so smart.”

Early versions of the play were filled with other characters, but eventually the script was whittled down to just the two core characters — along with some tap-dancing sheep, fire engines and dancing pigeons, of course.

Playwright Barry Kornhauser identified a central theme in Bert and Ernie’s relationship and boiled it down to that: Bert wants to get to sleep; Ernie has other plans. Along the way, said Brosius, “It’s a fascinating and glorious ride.”

An odd couple

“Bert & Ernie” reunites the two energetic actors from “Frog & Toad,” Reed Sigmund (Toad and Ernie) and Bradley Greenwald (Frog and Bert).

Sigmund acknowledged the challenge of embodying a character that all of your audience will already know so well.

“You don’t want them to think, ‘That’s just a guy,’” he said. “You want it to be, ‘He doesn’t look like Ernie, but that’s Ernie.’”

“That’s something Sesame Workshop encouraged,” said Greenwald, the lankier half of the duo. “You don’t need to mimic or physically mirror the characters. But we do capture their spirits and live out their stories.”

“Fortunately [Jim] Henson and [Frank] Oz gave us a lot to work with,” added Sigmund. “These are very human characters.”

The two were perched on Ernie’s bed — a stand-in, actually, made for the practice stage, a few weeks before the show opened — and clearly enjoying talking with each other about characters and a script that excite them both.

“What I like about Bert — and need to incorporate more in my own life — is how forgiving he is,” Greenwald said. “As frustrated as he gets, he can’t get angry at Ernie. He can’t hold any grudges. He’s at wit’s end, absolutely driven insane, but Bert never becomes angry. He gets frustrated, exasperated, despairing, confused, but never angry.”

“What’s great about Ernie,” Sigmund chimed in, “is he’s got mischief, but he’s an innocent being. Without that innocence, he can go from a likable guy to a real jerk. To capture that is fun. He’s a very unique character, and very familiar.”

“What they also manifest is a real connection between two disparate characters,” said Greenwald. “It’s their love for each other that’s strongest. They can’t not live with each other.”

Adaptation

Brosius, who didn’t grow up with Sesame Street, compared the original material to vaudeville — which he loves. “The writing is so good and such smart comedy,” he said. “As an adult who’s seen more than my fair share of theater, it’s just bloody good.”

But bringing that material into a new medium required more than just acting out the puppets’ scripts on stage. Brosius called the production “live and dynamic and true to the spirit [of Sesame Street]. We didn’t imitate. We referenced.”

While “Bert & Ernie, Goodnight” is a production of the Children’s Theatre Company, Sesame Workshop had to approve costumes and other aspects of the production. But they were also there to lend a helping hand, offering insight into complex characters they have known for 40 years.

“The people at Sesame Workshop are a joy to work with and serious in their mission,” Brosius said. “It isn’t your typical TV production company. They’re about issues, wrestling with complexity and children’s lives.”

Although CTC doesn’t currently have plans for Bert and Ernie beyond this production, the experience “makes us realize there are opportunities for partnership in many different places,” he said.

In the meantime, audiences can expect lots of familiar songs, including “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon,” “Imagine That,” and “Doin’ the Pigeon,” along with two or three new ones.

When the show wraps, Sigmund will don a dress for CTC’s production of “Cinderella,” Greenwald will prepare to play Lumiere in “Beauty and the Beast” at the Ordway and Brosius will focus on the other three CTC shows he’s directing this year: “Cinderella,” “Iron Ring” and the preschool show “The Biggest Little House in the Forest.”

“It’s going to be a fun year,” Brosius said.

Tricia Cornell can be reached at tcornell@mnpubs.com or 436-4386.