Theater / Performance

The Devil and Mr. Punch (Live Arts Festival, September 2011)

Mr. Punch and the Devil (all photos from the Live Arts Festival website)

What They Say It Is:

(from the Live Arts website)

The iconic Mr. Punch (of Punch and Judy fame) murders his way through life’s inconveniences, and yet his story has been the basis for beloved family entertainment for centuries. Unsatisfied with mere murder, The Devil and Mister Punch delves into the even darker world of Punch’s manipulators, the puppeteers themselves, and a pair of down-on-their-luck vaudeville-era theater producers, the ever-battling brothers Harvey and Hovey, who have hit rock bottom, reduced to presenting a puppet show that goes wildly off-course. A stage like a giant Victorian armoire has secret openings, a piano, and multiple performances areas. This shadowy, magical world features transatlantic wooden and papier-mâché players, music of the jug band era, a steaming crocodile, a parade of elephants, hangings, beatings, the devil, and—of course—sausages.

CLAY SAYS....

What more to say?

I’m sure I can come up with something.

In a nutshell, The Devil and Mr. Punch is a strong contender for the best piece of performance art I witnessed this year.   The Live Arts festival brochure featured numerous images of the demented puppet Mr. Punch (including a cameo of the titular puppet on the guide’s front cover) so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the show was so phenomenal.  As a lifelong fan of Jim Henson and puppetry in general, I was expecting great things, but I had no idea what I was in for.

Here’s a quick video to give you a general idea of what we witnessed.

If only every Fringe / Live Arts performance could be as good as The Devil and Mr. Punch.  Framed as a classic Punch & Judy performance (if you don’t know what this is, click here for a summary), tDaMP struck me as an avant-garde puppet show taking it’s stylistic cues from Terry Gilliam.  Before an audience of about 100, actors mingled interchangeably with hand puppets, skits begin on the stage and bubbled over into the theater, costumed musicians supplemented the comedic action with excellent performances on a variety of instruments.  Swirling in a vortex of traditional Punch & Judy motifs, the show veers crazily across a variety of artistic landscapes, incorporating bits of vaudeville, Faust, and modern puppetry into a fast-paced, utterly hilarious final product.

Hard to believe, but it had you on the edge of your seat.

All the classic bits of a Punch & Judy show were on display—Mr. Punch violently assaulting everyone who passes within his reach, gratuitous infant abuse, an intimidating crocodile, and populous contempt for law and order.  But this P&J interpretation differs from traditional sources by expanding the tale’s continuity and structure, creating a story with a beginning, middle and end, rather than just allowing Mr. Punch to run through a disconnected series of calamitous hijinks.  To this end, the Live Arts show greatly expands upon the final act, following the antihero through death, Hades, and inevitable victory over those forces that seek to ruin his fun.  Simultaneously, the primary puppet show is framed within a narrative of two bickering showmen who argue over the process and particulars of a successful Punch & Judy performance.  The overlapping puppet/human world is an ingenious device that maintains the freshness and tempo of all scenes.  The human characters are creepy buffoons caught in some extra-temporal limbo, while the puppets are timeless freaks, reveling in all-out mayhem.  The different realms are incredibly well-paired, and even the most inattentive audience member would be flabbergasted by the show’s speedy, seamless transitions.

You gotta love human puppets (or were they puppet humans?)

The whole thing–puppet show, frame-tale,  music, ambiance–was a hilarious success.  Pressed to describe the best moments, I’d likely list the car chase (clouds and trees cycle past the puppets like cartoon backgrounds), the surrealist success of the underwater sequence (Mr. Punch and other props spin lazily through a blue-lit void), and the unforgettable meta-commentary of a loveable puppet dog who acknowledges his own narratological irrelevance.  The entire show embodied a gleefully irreverent sense of humor, raising up the ghosts of a bygone age when comedy didn’t need to be intellectual or P.C., and audiences roared at the cheerful psychopath who bludgeons his own wife with a stick.

I had no prior knowledge of Punch and Judy before attending this event.  I thought we were going to attend a puppet show a-la Lambchop.  I was pleasantly surprised by the twisted nature of the “traditional” Punch and Judy show.  As a novice to Punch’s hijinks, Clay aided my understanding by explaining the recurrent characters and running gags that are a part of the typical show.

I particularly enjoyed the way themes (such as a particular puppet) were introduced and then reappeared throughout the show, creating a number of threads to follow and connect.  I also enjoyed that the show commented on itself–as my partner has mentioned–by the introduction of a character that seems to have no purpose but, in the final scenes, turns out to have a function after all.  Smart and funny.

The players in this production must have an enormous amount of stamina.  If I remember correctly, there were four players filling the role of multiple characters.  Duties included puppeteer, live sword battles, costume changes, multiple voices, singing and playing instruments!  It was worth our time and money just to witness the ability of these fine actors to dance, sing, voice modulate, and battle on stage.

The set design was also beautiful-imagine an enormous hutch with two human-sized doors on each end,  a few smaller upper and lower cupboard doors that can be opened and closed as needed, and all of these portals surrounding a “main-stage” puppet area in the middle.  In front of all this, the players had room for live action and an actual piano.  The design allowed the players to step out from the puppetering, address the audience and perform, then slip back behind the set, allowing the puppets–the real stars of the show–to reclaim center stage.

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