By Coco Mault
What is it about puppet shows? Is it that childlike imperfection that grabs us? We see the puppeteer’s wrists, and the tops of their heads will pop into view. Whatever it is, when a little fabric character takes to a tiny stage it’s hard not to be affected by it. But, of course, not all puppets are childlike. And there is nothing innocent about one puppet in particular: Mr. Punch of the famous Italian puppet duo, Punch and Judy.
Thursday marked the debut of Julian Crouch’s production of The Devil and Mr. Punch (A Work-in-Progress) at the Walker Art Center. And Mr. Punch’s actions actually caused people in the audience to audibly gasp in horror. You see, Punch is not a nice fellow. In fact, he’s just plain evil.
“I don’t necessarily like him, but I am interested in him,” said Crouch, creator of the show and artistic director at England’s Improbable Theater Company. He’s interested in puppetry in general, and has been for quite some time — he made his first puppet when he was 8 years old.
“I want puppetry to be a gutter art,” said Crouch. “Secretly I think puppetry is the highest art, but I like that it’s under the radar.”
Because puppetry typically isn’t taken seriously, Crouch said it has avoided persecution throughout history. As a result, characters have been able to survive for hundreds of years. And one of those characters is Mr. Punch. The Devil and Mr. Punch concludes the Walker Art Center’s Adventures In Puppetry series, and this show is, indeed, an adventure to watch. But apparently, creating it is an on-going adventure as well.
The show debuted after only eight days of rehearsals. As with the audience, Thursday was also the first time Crouch had seen the show. The opening scene could very well have been a comment on the creator’s uncertainty: A tiny red curtain parted to reveal a bulldog using a typewriter. He typed a few sentences, read them over, then promptly crumpled the paper and threw it to the ground.
The Devil and Mr. Punch focuses on themes of love and fighting, and the story is presented Vaudeville-style. It doesn’t exactly unfold in a linear fashion, but is interrupted with musical or oratorical scenes in which actors act with other actors, puppets with puppets, and actors with puppets. In one scene, a circus ringmaster puppet introduces his trained pigs. A few round, pink pigs bounce onto the stage ready to perform. They have adorable wiggly limbs and they show off their tricks as the ringmaster calls out commands, stacking themselves into a pyramid and the “leaning tower of pigs.” It’s clear the pigs are hand puppets, but it’s an endearing little scene and more than a few people in the audience cooed.
But for the most part the show is quite dark (it’s a Punch and Judy show after all) and Punch is an extremely evil character. In this show, he’s persecuted for murder, and a few audience members were visibly shocked by Punch’s violent actions.
The Devil and Mr. Punch is very much still a work in progress though, and will continue to evolve as the company prepares for more rehearsals in July before mounting the show in Philadelphia and London. “Whatever the show turns into will be the show we do,” said Crouch. He pointed out that being able to continuously collaborate and evolve with his cast is a luxury when compared to working on Broadway. “Broadway may be good for the bank book, but may not be so good for your sanity.”
The Devil and Mr. Punch (A Work-in-Progress) plays at The Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater. Tickets are $15; $12 for Walker members.