Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe: Roundup #3

The Devil and Mr. Punch, The Aliens, and Carthaginians

Also see Tim's reviews of Sylvia and Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe Roundup #1 and #2

The Devil and Mr. Punch
The Devil and Mr. Punch is a true marvel. A puppet show that's definitely not for kids, this show by Julian Crouch and the British theatre company Improbable explores the violent underside of Punch and Judy shows and the British Music Hall tradition—and, by extension, so much of what has long been thought of as "family" entertainment. It blends puppetry, live actors, and live music, and mixes corny jokes with striking wit. It's morbid, disturbing, and riotously funny.

The Devil and Mr. Punch is staged in a beautiful wood-paneled miniature theatre; the recessed areas in the paneling open up to reveal doors from which hands, puppets, and found objects—everything from a metronome to a miniature cannon—appear. And there are miniature proscenium windows where puppets appear, including those old favorites Punch and Judy. But Mr. Punch's violent treatment of Judy and their baby finally goes too far, and this time Mr. Punch must pay the price. His trial, his long walk to the gallows, and even his journey to hell are handled with plenty of rewarding dark humor. But Crouch and company's vision is wide-ranging, with a lot to say. In this world, knights in armor battle to the death, bulls plead with their matadors to be killed, and a cute dog puppet uses a typewriter—then sues his puppet master in court because he's only been used in one skit. The Devil and Mr. Punch comments on itself as much as it comments on the history of entertainment.

There's some haunting, expressive music, and some disturbing and striking images. It's a spellbinding presentation that's audacious, riveting and hilarious. Go see it.

The Devil and Mr. Punch is presented by Improbable and runs through September 16, 2011 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia. Details at

Sam Henderson, Aubie Merrylees and Jeb Kreager
Look out, everyone. KJ says he is about to sneeze.

KJ is the main character in Annie Baker's The Aliens. He's a college dropout who spends his days staring into space, smoking, drinking coffee, ingesting psychedelic mushrooms, and singing bizarre songs he wrote for his rock band—a band which, after a decade or so, has never given a live performance. And now, wait for it, he's about to sneeze. He leans his head back to prepare for the blast, but ... nothing. Turns out he doesn't have to sneeze after all.

That's about as exciting as The Aliens gets. This tale of two thirtyish slackers and the teenager who becomes their friend doesn't have any big moments; it fleshes out its characters gradually, and it prides itself on being subtle. But there's a fine line between subtle and tedious, and The Aliens crosses it repeatedly. Add an unlikable main character, and you've got the recipe for an odd, unpleasant night at the theater.

KJ and his buddy Jasper, a fellow stoner who has talent as a novelist, hang out at a table near the garbage bin behind a Vermont coffeehouse. Evan is a nerdy high school student who works inside, and when he carries out trash to the bin, he tells them they're not allowed to sit there. No, KJ and Jasper lazily insist, someone else told them that it's OK. Evan is puzzled by these two losers, but intrigued by them, too. As the summer wears on, KJ and Jasper get to know Evan better and eventually take him under their wing. They even invite him to their Fourth of July party.

"Where is the party?" asks Evan.

"Here," says Jasper.

That's about it for the plot, at least in the first act. In the second act, a tragedy occurs, Evan grows up a bit, and KJ gets weirder. And every scene is dotted with pauses so long they would make Harold Pinter jealous. It's original, and it's probably deep on some philosophical level, but it's not interesting to watch.

Director Matt Pfeiffer gets convincing performances out of all his actors. Sam Henderson and Jeb Kreager play KJ and Jasper without resorting to druggie clich├ęs, and Aubie Merrylees is touching as Evan.

The Aliens is presented by Theatre Exile and runs through September 18, 2011 at Studio X, 1340 South 13th Street, Philadelphia. Details at

Carthaginians, a 1987 play by Frank McGuinness about Northern Ireland and the legacy of the Bloody Sunday massacre, is set in a cemetery. Rev Theatre Company has decided to stage the play in several historic Philadelphia cemeteries. I went to a performance the other night in the graveyard at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes) Church, Pennsylvania's oldest church.

So, how was the performance? I wish I knew. I sat (on the ground) in the third row, but I probably only heard about a third of the dialogue. The lack of projection and amplification, coupled with the sounds of traffic from I-95 across the street, prevented me from figuring out who the characters were, what their relationship was, or why they were in a cemetery in the first place. After twenty minutes, I gave up.

Performances continue this weekend at Laurel Hill Cemetery. I hope they don't run into the same problems there.

Carthaginians continues performances on September 16 and 17, 2011, at Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia. Details at

-- Tim Dunleavy

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