The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch
We get two interwoven stories here. The first is a Punch and Judy show, performed in a traditional booth. Mr. Punch, left to care for his screaming baby while Judy runs down to the pub, tosses the baby around, and ultimately kills the baby. A child watching the puppet show calls foul, saying, "That's not the way it's supposed to go. Families are supposed to love each other!" The puppet show obligingly changes, with a happy little sun appearing behind the puppets while Punch and Judy have a few moments of domestic bliss. But the happiness doesn't last and the evil of the original story reappearsthe infant is still dead. Punch yells at the child who tried to give his story a happy ending, "Babies die!" as music swirls, dark images appear, and a nightmare quality takes over the proceedings.
And then ... the other story. The boy who demanded familial love is in a family without much of it. The story, told in flashback, is what happened one summer when he was temporarily sent away from his parents while they awaited the arrival of a new baby. During this time, the boy lived with his grandparents and great uncle at a seaside arcade. This is no bright and cheerful vacation destination, with cotton candy and children's laughter. Instead, this is the sort of arcade you'd expect in a "Twilight Zone" episodewith a ghost train, funhouse mirrors, a wistful mermaid and, of course, a Punch and Judy show.
Director Sean T. Cawelti and the design team from Rogue Artists Ensemble have pulled out all the stops to bring this graphic novel to life while staying true to the inherent visualness of the medium. While scenes are played onstage, large screens often "illustrate" them with surreal images, shadow puppets or video clips. At one point, when the grandfather is making frightening threats to the boy, the screen shows terrifying images as the words of the threats are displayed. It enhances the impact of the threats exponentially (or, at least it would have, if the actor was not a full line out of sync with the imagery). And, as the show goes back and forth between Punch and Judy and the boy's memories of his time with his grandfather, the lines between the two blurto the point where lifesize puppets take over the stage, and whether lifesize Punch is Punch or the boy's grandfather is a matter of some (intentional) confusion.
The problem here is that it isn't all done in service to the storythe production has a lot of inventive elements, but many of them seem to be thrown in just because Rogue can do them. At best, they stop the flow of the tale. At worst, they detract from it. In the second act, the "Professor" running the Punch and Judy show tells the boy a story about the grandfather's past. But rather than just sit down and tell the boy the story (with illustrations on the screens as before), the Professor opens up a travelling salesman's case and tells the story with tiny puppets on a small stage therein. It's a bit sillyand it's played that way, with the Professor doing the puppets' voices and saying things like "smoochy smoochy" when they kissbut it all takes away from the actual tale he's telling. This is a key scenethe boy (and the audience) is getting a huge piece of the puzzle in terms of understanding the grandfatherbut there's no dramatic payoff from the telling of the tale because it isn't just told. The whole purpose of adapting this graphic novel for the stage is to create an unreal universe in which the boy's memories and the Punch and Judy show collide; clever stagecraft as an end in itself simply doesn't belong.
Other times, it's absolutely brilliant. When the boy first arrives at the arcade, we see video images of the arcade on the screen, and the transition from screen to live theatre is especially well-executed. It is then followed by four darkly clad actors who play out the sights of the arcadethey show us the boy riding the ghost train or looking at himself in funhouse mirrors, without any set pieces or props beyond the actors themselves. It sets the scene and evokes the feel of the place without requiring puppetry or over-the-top performing, and it serves to remind that, sometimes, in storytelling, you really can do more with less.
The Tragical Comedy OR Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch runs at the Bootleg Theater in L.A. through August 31, 2008. For tickets and information, see www.rogueartists.org.
Rogue Artists Ensemble presents The Tragical Comedy OR Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch. Adapted from the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean. Produced in Association with Bootleg Theatre. Directed by Sean T. Cawelti; Adapted by Sean T. Cawelti with Miles Taber and the Rogues; Technical Direction by Tyler Stamets; Stage Management by Joe R. Soto; Scenic Design by Joel Daavid; Costume Design by Kerry Hennessy; Make-up Design by Wes Crain; Music Composed by Ben Phelps; Choreography by Nate Hodges; Mask Design by Patrick Rubio; Puppet Design by Joyce Hutter; Lighting Design by Mel Domingo; Sound Design by John Nobori; Video Design by Brian White.