Harvey & Hovey Present “The Devil and Mister Punch”
Improbable Theater–whose cofounder Julian Crouch is responsible for the macabre masterpiece Shock-Headed Peter–has created the antithesis of a ten-a-penny puppet theatrical. The murderous Mister Punch (of the centuries-old Punch and Judy Show) commits infanticide and uxoricide with the routine nonchalance of a Victorian gentleman waxing his mustache. His subsequent encounters with Mephistopheles are interspersed with variety hall musical numbers, a bull parading comedically across the stage, and nude butchers conspiring to lead piglets to their slaughter. This disjunctive series of vignettes combines with the story of Mister Punch to remind us that you always make mincemeat pie of the ones you love.
Though we are initially led to assume that double-homicides will be confined to the compartmentalized space of the puppet theater, Punch’s puppeteers–the dueling vaudevillian duo of Harvey & Hovey–are eventually overtaken by the narrative they’ve crafted and stray from their designated performance area to do battle. Throughout the production, players first depicted as puppets later appear in human form and human actors metamorphose into miniaturized versions of themselves. A cautionary warning, it would seem, that the narratives we construct and habitually consume come to possess us.
The piece plays at being pure spectacle, a series of nonsensically unrelated variety entertainments suitable to the Orpheum Circuit c. 1927. But as a papier-mâché judge informs the dubious dog Toby in a courtroom scene, the burden of analytical synthesis lies with the spectator. There’s much to marvel at here, from brilliantly scripted anachronistic dialogue to a visual lushness unrivaled by any 2011 Live Arts production I’ve seen to date. The Devil and Mister Punch plays at the Christ Church Neighborhood House until September 16th. In the unlikely event that this tour de force fails to astonish and mortify you; you have lost the capacity for both wonder and horror.