A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch Review - That’s the Way to Do It! (Mostly)

 

Sarah Cartwright (back) as Charlotte, L to R in masks: Carolyn Hoerdemann, Owais Ahmed, Will Casey, Joey Steakley; Johnny Arena as Punch (front). Charlotte’s new tale about Punch being arrested for his crimes comes to life

 

The House Theatre opens their fifteenth season with the world premiere of A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch. Drawing inspiration from the popular Punch and Judy puppet shows of eighteenth-century England, this new work from playwright Kara Davidson follows Charlotte, a scrappy orphan girl who strikes up an unlikely partnership with Italian puppeteer Pietro. With gorgeous design work and deliciously dark undertones, A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch features a number of spellbindingly strange elements but struggles to create a unified whole.

 

Sarah Cartwright as Charlotte, Joey Steakley as Joey the Clown, with hand puppet by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. Charlotte begins to bring the puppets to life when they are alone in the workshop

 

Davidson’s script is whimsical, grandiose, and sinister all at once, but it suffers from the absence of a center. At times, the relationship between Charlotte and Pietro seems to be the heart of the story, but enough stage time is dedicated to a romantic subplot, conflict with the law, moral questions about the content of the Punch and Judy show, and Charlotte’s development as a puppeteer that ultimately, no single arc takes precedence. Since the world of the play already weaves so much in and out of reality as life-size puppets appear and disappear, this plurality of plots is rather dizzying.  

 

Johnny Arena as Punch, masks by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. Inside the puppet show Pietro performs, Mister Punch comes to life on stage, wielding his club

 

This is not to say, however, that the various storylines are not enjoyable. The show features a strong ensemble of actors as well as expert design work. Sarah Cartwright’s performance as Charlotte is rich and compelling, and combined with Adrian Danzig, who brings both tenderness and harshness to the mysterious Pietro, the pair make for a dynamic set of leads. Indeed, there is not a single cast member who brings anything less than a first-rate performance to the stage, creating an ensemble of characters rich with complexity and nuance.

 

Adrian Danzig as Pietro, Echaka Agba as Polly. Pietro visits the barmaid, Polly, for after hours fun

 

The design, in turn, does much of the heavy lifting in building the world of the play. Scenic design by Lee Keenan creates the atmosphere of Davidson’s dark but inviting world before the show even begins, and the use of levels provides opportunities for eye-catching stage pictures. The costumes and puppets are so intertwined with the storytelling as to be almost inseparable from it, and the work of puppet designer Eleanor Kahn and that of costume designer Izumi Inaba work seamlessly together to create detailed and unique character designs that drive the play’s device of bringing puppets to life. Excellent fight choreography by David Woolley plays a vital role in this story that so heavily features both realistic and cartoonish violence.

 

Sarah Cartwright as Charlotte, puppets by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. Using Pietro’s creations, Charlotte tries to spin a tale with more justice for the mean, old Punch

 

The show begins to fall apart in the latter half of the second act. The line between reality and the imagined lives of the puppets begins to blur, which might be exciting if executed well, but the ambiguous fate of Pietro, as well as a hard turn in Charlotte’s character in the final moment of the show, leaves the story’s conclusion more baffling than satisfying. Additionally, a scene featuring the amateur application of medical stitches feels unnecessarily prolonged and grotesque without adding much to the story.

 

Adrian Danzig as Pietro, Sarah Cartwright as Charlotte. Pietro resists taking the young orphan Charlotte in under his workshop roof

 

A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch has all the makings of an excellent piece of theatre. The creative reimagining of the Punch and Judy characters, coupled with a compelling cast of characters and some difficult questions about the darker side of human nature, holds potential for greatness. Some tightening of the script would elevate this show, rife with the work of talented theatre artists, to greater heights.

 

Sarah Cartwright as Charlotte. Charlotte is inspired to give mean Mister Punch a better companion and create a Pretty Polly puppet. All photos by Michael Brosilow

 

Ticket Information

Dates: September 2 – October 23

Times: Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m

Location: Chopin Theatre’s Upstairs Theater, 1543 W. Division St.

Tickets: $30-35. $15 same-day tickets for students and industry professionals are available for all dates, seats permitting. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the House theatre website or call 773.769.3832.

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