Posted by: strugglesome | September 17, 2011

Punch Drunk Love: Improbable Brings Philadelphia The Devil and Mr. Punch

As it turns out, people are pretty divided on puppets. I wouldn’t have thought such a thing, but there are people out there with very strict no-puppet policies. Maybe it’s the tiny hands, or the ventriloquist connotations or the concept that puppets spend their whole lives with someone elses hand inside of them, but some people simply do not like watching a small representation of a human, animal or alien prance around a tiny stage. Of course, I would never associate with such people, because I’m very pro-puppet in all aspects of my life. I’m just saying, such people exist. And they are really missing out on some great shows. Specifically Improbable‘s wild, wonderous and weird The Devil and Mr. Punch. Though of course, if it’s the uncomfortable factor about puppets that drives people away then this isn’t really a great example of safe happy puppetry….

Of course, you can’t just blame U.K based Improbable for the creepy nature of this show, because it’s really all Punch and Judy‘s fault. But on this side of the pond (and the pound! Get it? GET IT?) the reference is not quite as clear, at least, not outside of the film Charade. So let’s talk Punch, shall we? The name Punch is thought to come from the commedia del’arte mask Puncinella, on of the most powerful of the servant-characters and a master of misrule. In England Puncinella become the shorter and more cockney appropriate Punch, and he was joined by the ever-so-Anglican Judy. Together the two have lived through thousands of scenarios together, most of which have ended with Punch killing everyone. In that way he’s very much like another British import, James Bond, he leaves everyone else in the frame dead. Though there are many stories and many plotlines, traditionally Punch and Judy begin the show by enjoyed martial bliss (no, not like that, get your mind out of the gutter) and Judy is called away for some reason, asking Punch to look after the baby. Punch will somehow destroy the child, either by beating it to death, in the 17th and 18th centuries, or neglect, the kinder death of the modern age. Judy will return and Punch, unable to explain away the death of their only offspring, will be forced to beat Judy as well. And so begins the long chain of beatings, each one followed with Punch’s signature catch phrase, a squawked and squeaky “That’s the way to do it!”. But after that initial set up, the story can twist and turn depending on the puppet master in question. Punch will often evade a policeman, meet up with a doctor, and run into a crocodile (the Thames is just infested with them, it’s amazing) encounter some sausages, and trick a hangman. You know, the usual agenda.

But that’s Punch and Judy for you, And Improbable’s The Devil and Mr. Punch initially looks exactly like what we colonists might assume a traditional puppet show resembles. After all, the founding fathers loved Punch and Judy, so why shouldn’t we? Misters Harvey and Hurvey*, their white face make up neatly applied, reveal only their faces from behind a magnificent wooden curtain, outfitted with sliding panels galore, all the better for puppets to pop out of every orifice. A well-shod young man plays piano, it’s clear notes echoing through the halls of Christ Church Neighborhood House. He is joined by a young woman with Mrs. Lovett hair and a gorgeous costume and together they croon as a panel slides open and we watch a small paper mache head, grotesque, bald, phallic nose almost meeting stubborn chin, slide onto the two middle fingers of a hand. And with that, our Punch is born, naked and silent, stripped to his essentials. When next we see him he will be clothed in a ruff and black sack-dress, squawking away and dancing to his own private theme song, but we can’t forget the image of what goes into this so loaded and revered and reviled little man. He’s just a giant head on someone’s hand. How on earth did he become so powerful?

And as Punch runs through his paces, teasing crocodiles and murdering his adversaries, we learn more and more about Misters Harvey and Hovey. Longtime partners, Mr. Harvey is the true puppet master, the ringmaster, the voice of our hated and adored Punch. The long-suffering sweetly incompetent Mr. Hovey may not be able to display a sign correctly, but he does his best, and his loyalty to the act couldn’t possibly be questioned. But these two men are running a dying show. Who cares about Punch and Judy these days? Who knows that every show includes piggies and pork pies (which, incident, is also cockney rhyming slang for lies, something Mr. Punch also loves) and dead babies and encounters with the devil? Even the advent of Toby the music-writing narrative-challenging dog is a kind of deceased joke; Toby the dog was a popular character in Punch and Judy shows who eventually became less and less a part of the show. So even as Hovey  and Harvey send Punch to hell, they are in a sense there themselves. Yes, they once “played them all”, but now, now they are exhausted, exhausted by the invincible immoral Punch, exhausted by each other, exhausted by having reached the peak of success only to have survived the trip down into the valley of whatever comes after fame.

And the company discharges this journey beautifully, and amazingly. These little puppets (and they really are little, sit close) live and die in their tiny windows of stages, scored with gorgeous and grotesque tunes twanging from cello, violin, piano and pan-pipe. Hovey and Harvey and excellent, grimacing and performing perfectly, letting reality break through their pasted on smiles for just a split second before they try, desperately, to perform once again. But once that veil has been lifted taking it down again is a Herculean effort, and once we see the darkness lurking (well, not really lurking) beneath Mr. Punch and his puppeters, it’s only a matter of time before that darkness overtakes us. And if it takes rather too much time, dragging on a touch towards the end, well, given how sweetly painful the end of the piece is, maybe it’s alright if we have a little preparation time before we witness the finality of all existences. Though I certainly doubt Mr. Punch would really approve, he doesn’t really believe in giving people a fair warning.

*(This is highly irregular but Improbable has done us the dirty European (not that England is Europe) socialist disservice of not crediting people in the program or online. Instead, they simple name everyone as the “creative team”, making it impossible for one to label people appropriately. How dare they be truly democratic? It’s uncommonly bizarre. Don’t they know this is America. So I must simply name all the names responsible for this astounding piece of the theater here: Julian Crouch, Rob Thirtle, Nick Haverson, John Foti, Saskia Lane, Jessica Scott, Seamus Maynard, Sarah Laux, Ragnar Freidank, Darron West, Marcus Doshi, Scott Burgess and Mike Kearns.)

Improbable’sThe Devil and Mister Punch has completed it’s delicious and brief run in the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival, but you can find out more about the show here and the company here.

Comments? Questions? Concerns? I welcome them all! Please feel free to comment below!


  1. […] matter. So I will simply list the tremendous cast here, because I have no other recourse. (Is this a British thing?) Sleep No More  is performed by Phil Atkins, Careena Melia, Jordan Morley, Gabriel Forestieri, […]

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