Chicago Theatre Review
A Handful of Violence
A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch – House Theatre of Chicago
Charlotte is a plucky little girl living on the streets of Victorian London, surviving however she can. One day, while watching Italian puppeteer Pietro performing his Punch and Judy show, Charlotte is offered a job by the artist, to serve as a kind of apprentice, in exchange for room and board. In addition to learning the trade, she also acts as Professor Pietro’s bottler, corralling the audience, introducing the puppet show and collecting monetary donations, or the “bottle.” Pietro cuts off Charlotte’s braids and transforms her into Charlie, as a way of protecting the young girl’s innocence from certain underworld deviants. It’s from this point that this world premiere play becomes a little muddy.
The violent nature of the Punch and Judy puppet plays, which was derived from the slapstick improvisations of 16th century commedia dell’arte, permeates this new play. Mr. Punch, the English name given to the Italian character of Punchinello, is a recreant who defies all authority. He’s a hunchbacked, hook-nosed fellow who speaks in an irritating, squawking voice. The rebellious Punch is married and, when entrusted with the care of his baby, throws the screaming child out the window. He and his wife Judy get into a knock-down-drag-out fight over this abuse, during which Mr. Punch whacks his acid-tongued spouse with his stick until she’s dead. From then on, Punch has run-ins with a policeman, Pretty Polly, Joey the Clown, a crocodile, the hangman and even the devil, all of whom suffer at the hand of his slapstick.
In Kara Davidson’s original play, puppets are used to tell portions of this familiar story; but there’s also the real-life human actors who also breathe life into these exaggerated characters. It’s in the second half of the play when the story becomes confusing and difficult to tell precisely what’s happening. Fantastic puppets, expressive masks and creative costumes, all hallmarks of the House Theatre, impress and leave a lasting image. However, it becomes unclear what exactly is happening between Pietro, played with enthusiasm by Adrian Danzig, Polly, sweetly portrayed by Echaka Agba, and Charlotte/Charlie, played with likable honesty and total commitment by Sarah Cartwright. The theatrics are, as always, most impressive, but the story becomes confusing and seems open to interpretation. There’s plenty of realistic violence, bloodshed (something audiences never see in a real Punch and Judy puppet show) and even death, making this production unsuitable for younger audience members.
Other terrific portrayals come from Johnny Arena, as the humanized Mr. Punch, Carolyn Hoerdemann as the real Judy and as a Blind street singer, and Michael E. Smith as the gigantic human baby, the Alligator and others. Joey Steakley is an eerie Joey the Clown, Owais Ahmed plays a variety of rotating roles and the always reliable Will Casey is frightening as the browbeating Police Officer.
While this original play, staged with as much focus and historical accuracy as possible by Shade Murray, impresses with its visuals and energy, there’s a point at which it leaves the audience in the dark. Applause to a tireless Sarah Cartwright, who seldom leaves the stage, playing a convincing street kid with spunk, determination and valor. Diction and a few mumbled lines, combined with a slightly confusing storyline, prevent theatergoers from fully understanding the play. However, Ms. Cartwright is always reliable and comes shining through. In the end, impressively creative costumes, by Izumi Inaba, and beautifully detailed puppets and masks, by Jesse Mooney-Bullock, make this productions a virtuosic visual treat.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 2-October 23 by The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-769-3832 or by going to www.thehousetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com