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What do you do with a BA in English? 

It’s a bit awful when you realize that your parents/teachers/various authority figures effectively lied to you. Even if, at school, you get dazzling grades, captain the lacrosse team, and somehow speak seven languages, in this global economic crisis it’s darn tricky to get a job. So even though Avenue Q was first performed in March of 2003, it strikes a highly resonant chord with disenchanted youth today. The musical, written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, is being staged at Unity in SLO through Dec. 15. (Visit for tickets and showtimes.)

Avenue Q follows the character of Princeton (Cody Pettit), a recent graduate searching for a purpose in life. Interestingly, only three of the focal characters are human; the remaining 11 cast members are puppets, controlled by puppeteers the audience is expected to ignore. This requires a suspension of disbelief, and is inspired by Sesame Street. Thus, while it evokes childhood memories, the use of puppets in the show is shrewd and slick. They symbolize the shattering of childish fantasies, contrasting the inexhaustible enthusiasm of youthful aspirations with the harsh reality that lifestyle options are limited. The visual effect of the puppets beside the human puppeteers starkly underscores this coming of age.

The premise is worryingly identifiable: Princeton moves to Avenue Q because it’s the only neighborhood in his price range. There, he meets a ragtag gaggle of characters who teach him that, though he might have a B.A. in English, he still has lots to learn about life.

The musical deals head-on with controversial issues, the sort we tend to shy away from: racism, porn, and homosexuality are just a few. And rather than being a tired tirade on political correctness, the musical seamlessly flows into songs that are insightful, witty, and funny. “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” for example, acknowledges that racism is an adult reality. The song starts when Princeton asks a fellow character, Kate (Tabitha Skanes), if she and Trekkie Monster (Lester Wilson) are related because they’re both monsters—sparking outrage from Kate.

Avenue Q has catchy, controversial songs, puppet sex, and three Tony awards. And on a personal note, the question posed by the song “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” is proving a conundrum at the moment, so if nothing else, I’ll be going to seek some life advice. Even if it is from a puppet.

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