The Joys of Violence
The House Theatre’s A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch is not merely an homage to the classic puppet duo Punch and Judy, but also a meditation on the depiction of violence and its function in storytelling. In the classic Punch and Judy show, Punch, a malevolent hunchback whose only way of relating to the world is through violence, goes around beating anyone who bothers him (including his wife and child) to death with a club. For some reason most people (myself included) find this hilarious. The contrast that Kara Davidson’s new play presents is between enacting such violence through a proxy (a puppet) and enacting it upon human bodies. Shade Murray’s direction places these two forms in stark and sometimes disturbing relief, and forces us to ask ourselves why one elicits hilarity while the other disgust and pity. Davidson suggests that the puppet mirrors “pieces of [our] psyche that are vulnerable, and fragile, and tenuous, and ugly.” Perhaps they allow us to act out dark impulses in symbolic form that are too horrific to express otherwise?
Keystone Cops Zany in the House Theatre Way
While dealing with such weighty subject matter, Murray and his cast find much to laugh about, and fill the stage with frantic, dreamlike, Keystone Cops-esque zaniness that seems always on the verge of collapse. I was grateful for the moments in the play when the action seemed to crystallize: a Punch and Judy show starts with live actors in place of puppets, the Blind Woman’s (Carolyn Hoerdemann’s) ethereal voice cuts through the chaos as she sings in a tavern, or Joey the Clown (Joey Steakley) capers about the stage with a comic precision that is a joy to watch. I found myself longing for more of these grounding moments, though this was, perhaps, the point, as this is not the sort of play that functions by keeping the audience grounded. In contrast, in the sense of Brecht’s work—one can see resonances here of the Three Penny Opera, for example—the play functions partly by maintaining this sense of being off-kilter. The puppets, mask work, and set all support the emphasis on the life of objects that is central to the story, and the costumes, in particular, are worth the price of admission alone. Costume designer Izumi Inaba, who I had the pleasure of working with at Northwestern, captures the grotesquerie of commedia dell’arte with padded suits, masks, and a giant baby costume that must be seen to be believed.
A particularly strong performance is given by Sarah Cartwright as the scrappy orphan Charlotte; her ability to portray both the comedic and wrenchingly painful sides of her character is remarkable, especially from such a young actress. Johnny Arena is deliciously despicable as Mister Punch, and Michael E. Smith charms and delights in several roles, including a foppish young lad, a giant baby, and a crocodile with a ridiculous French accent. There were a few cases in which the actors’ accents distracted or confused me, but Michael E. Smith’s was not one of those.
On the whole, this play will appeal to an audience who appreciates challenging non-realist work that poses questions about the nature of art and how it mirrors the human condition. The House does this particular type of play well, and they do not disappoint with Mister Punch.
The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division, St, Chicago
Now through Oct. 23, Thurs. - Sat. @ 8pm, Sundays @ 7pm
$30-$35, same-day student and industry: $15
Photos: Michael Brosilow
About the Author:
Derek Barton is a Chicago-based performance artist, educator, and director of both film and stage productions. A graduate of Northwestern's Performance Studies doctoral program, his
work explores issues of sustainability, social justice, and artistic
intervention in public space.