Review “A Comedical Tragedy for Mr. Punch” (The House Theatre of Chicago): Now That’s How You Do It!

house_misterpunchReviewed by Tom Lawler

Set the scene: The House Theater, no stranger to darkening up storybook classics (i.e., The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan,  The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz), now deconstructs a tale that’s already pretty grim – the violent and outrageous “Punch and Judy” puppet shows that reached their peak in the 1700s with British seaside audiences.

What’s it all about: Kara Davidson, in her first writing credit for House, pens a story set in grimy Victorian London about  puppeteer Pietro (500 Clown’s Adrian Danzig), who lives an austere, solitary life with a particular talent for bringing the foul-mouthed Mr. Punch and his put-upon spouse, Judy, to life. But in an Dickensian twist, Pietro soon takes a street urchin under his wing (Sarah Cartwright) who strives to help him find love and happiness until, alas, tragedy strikes. (Despite the similar titles, this work is not related to Neil Gaiman’s 1994 graphic novel, The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch.)

Stand-out performance: As the Italian puppet master, Adrian Danzig delivers a performance most eccellente that is both showy and restrained. He opens the play by ducking behind a small curtain and performing a short “Punch and Judy” puppet show for the audience single-handedly (“Punch and Judy” shows were historically performed by a single puppeteer.). In a show that often dazzles us with technical virtuosity and style, Danzig wisely underplays with his portrayal of a weathered, taciturn performer who only comes to life when he ducks behind a curtain and becomes the raging id of Mister Punch. Entirely comfortable working in his Italian accent and with all of the artifice around him, Danzig is an essential grounding element to this “Mister Punch.”

Also, check out: Director Shade Murray and his creative team don’t skimp on the theatrical treats for “Mister Punch.” First among them, the “Punch and Judy” puppets often come to life and are embodied by House actors in imaginative masks and costumes as brilliantly crafted by Izumi Inaba (costume designer). As gleefully portrayed by Johnny Arena, Mister Punch is particular is a sleazy wise-ass wonder. As he socks a police officer with a club and crows his catchphrase, “now that’s the way you do it!” you quickly understand that Victorian entertainment wasn’t nearly as quaint as you might expect. 

More of this, please: From the moment you approach the Chopin theater and and its colorful, eye-catching “Mister Punch” marquee to the ornate illustration that comprises the show poster and program, you have to be wowed by House Theater’s commitment to bringing us a Victorian-era evening of entertainment and is ability to execute such a clear, high-minded vision. It’s also an inclusive vision: House even gives us the opportunity to cut out our own finger puppets and join in the festivities. (In “Punch and Judy” shows of yore, audience members would cheer or boo the characters, or warn them of impending danger.)

However: For all the theatrical riches and energetic performances across the board, it becomes evident by the end of Act I that the episodic script is lacking some dramatic essentials: characters that we care about in rising conflict. In Act II, we seem to finally get at the themes playwright Davidson is most interested in exploring. Namely, to truly be exceptional at your art, do you have to dedicate yourself to it completely and forsake all other entanglements? One doubts, however, anyone in a theater company as collaborative and fertile as House could have ever given this notion much serious thought.

Do this first: Perhaps some good British pub food before the play? How about  Owen and Engine?

Do this after: Cocktails inside an old bank vault nearby at The Bedford.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission)

At Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

Written by: Kara Davidson

Directed by: Shade Murray

Sound Designer and Recorded Music: Kevin O’Donnell

Puppet Designer: Jesse Mooney-Bullock

Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 7pm

Thru October 23

Tickets: $15-$35

Buy Tickets at 773.769.3832 or http://thehousetheatre.com/

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