Mr. Punch is a wily one.
The puppet named Punch and his beleaguered wife Judy have been around since the 16th century, but never quite like this. Julian Crouch, renowned theatrical designer/mask and puppet artist and co-founder of Improbable out of London, was similarly wily in the creation of his version of Punch and Judy, which both keeps with the tradition of the old puppet show, and breaks it.
The Devil and Mister Punch is about so much more than a murderous puppet meeting his fate at the gates of hell. The dark, dueling, and mustachioed puppetmasters Harvey and Hovey (In truth Harvey is the one pulling all the strings—like Punch, he’s a little bit sadistic. Hovey is his sad-sack underling.) get their psuedo-comic, bittersweet, and creepy moments in the limelight as well. The human story of this nihilistic duo parallels the outrageous puppet violence in a brilliant stroke of meta theater.
The macabre technical style of The Devil and Mister Punch would make Tim Burton proud. A stage upon a stage is fashioned after an antique wardrobe. With various doors and cubbyholes for fingers, faces, and puppets to pop out of, playgoers can never be quite sure where the action will unfold. Even in the midst of the established Punch through-lines, little innovations in sound (the show features some fantastic moments from live musicians playing a variety of instruments), asides to the audience, and other unique surprises serve to frighten, disgust, and entice fits of laughter, sympathy, and delight.
The Devil and Mister Punch is a roller coaster of emotion beyond what its Punch and Judy predecessor or the original’s Muppet progeny could convey. It’s an innovative re-imagining with excellent execution. Who would have thought a gritty concept could serve up such sophistication?