'Punch': Plenty of Guts, but Not So Much Brain
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
When a production's playbill includes a separate credit for a blood designer, it's a safe bet the show doesn't cater to the squeamish.
Such, indeed, is the case with "Punch -- that's the way we do it" -- an hour-long bout of ribald horseplay presented by the fledgling local troupe Dog & Pony DC. Written and directed by Wyckham Avery -- and supplied with a Niagara of gore by Casey Kaleba -- "Punch" is a bad bet only for anyone who squirms at, say, the idea of a man jumping rope with a length of small intestine.
Alas, notwithstanding its Grand Guignol special effects, and a script so peppered with vulgarisms as to send an FCC chairman into hysterics, "Punch" is at root a rough-hewn, vaguely interesting exercise in theatrical scholarship. In this "commedia/punk" hybrid (as Avery has dubbed it), live actors rampage through an adaptation of the classic Punch-and-Judy show -- the jovially violent puppet play that is a centuries-old tradition in British popular culture.
Riffing off iconic versions of the tale, Avery's Punch (a gravel-voiced Dan VanHoozer) gleefully kills his baby; beats to death his wife, Judy (Niki Jacobsen); disembowels a doctor (Jacobsen, doubling); murders an executioner (Lee Liebeskind); and ultimately matches wits with the Devil himself (Liebeskind again).
These days, this kind of sinister mayhem might smack of slasher films and adults-only video games (and this production is certainly not for children), but the Punch-and-Judy genre actually boasts a distinguished artistic pedigree: Academics trace the anti-authoritarian figure of Punch back to the commedia dell'arte character Pulcinella. The Dog & Pony DC production cites this legacy with commedia-style masks (designed by Avery) for the characters, who include the clown Joey (Josh Drew), a kind of fairground-booth emcee who capers around the edges of the narrative.
But if Avery invokes the venerable ancestry of the Punch genre, she's also more interested in exploring the story's ick factor, which -- obviously -- skyrockets when the tale travels from an inherently distancing hand-puppet context to the immediacy of live-actor drama.
Adding another layer of subversion, this show's script endows its title character with a supersized libido, ready to indulge in necrophilia and bestiality. A punk-rock soundtrack seems to underscore Punch's anti-establishment energy. The production's goal is to probe the boundaries of viewer discomfort, and to examine how the unsettling can shade into the pleasurable.
In theory, it's a valid project; but in practice, the Halloween gothicism and adolescent lewdness of "Punch" are more tedious than thought-provoking. VanHoozer's thuggish Punch becomes grating as he swaggers around, committing felonies; growling about sausages (the character's favorite food); briefly spoofing Shakespeare ("Is this a sausage that I see before me? . . . "); and pestering the audience (no fourth wall in this production, alas).
Not that the play wholly lacks bright spots. Liebeskind has a funny moment as Satan, fastidiously arranging his tie and cuffs before pouncing on his victim. Dressed in black boots and a minidress, Jacobsen vamps effectively as Judy; and, donning goofily bushy eyebrows, she's suitably pompous as the Doctor. Puppet designer Betsy Rosen briefly steals the show with her rendering of the dog Toby (a stock Punch-and-Judy character) as a found-object mannequin, with a wooden-handbag body, a whisk-broom leg and a long lolling tongue.
And on the slaughter front, fight choreographer Lorraine Ressegger efficiently maneuvers grisly combat around Colin K. Bills's set, which -- aptly -- resembles a cardboard finger-puppet theater blown up to human scale.
As for Kaleba's blood: It spurts so vigorously that the first two rows of seats have been equipped with garbage-bag capes for spectators to don. Some ticketholders might just wish the whole show could get a tourniquet.
Punch -- that's the way we do it, written and directed by Wyckham Avery. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Margo Beirne. About one hour.