I suggest Harry Potter fans stay away from the Rogue Artists‘ adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean‘s “The Comical Tragedy OR Tragical Comedy of MR. PUNCH.” It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not for humans period. It’s for puppets. Only creatures made of wood can withstand this two-hour ride on the planet of the puppets where humans’ distorted features forever expose the latent predator in all of us. Think twice before you step in the theater, because, like The Professor (Tom Ashworth) says to The Boy (Sean Eaton/Connor Merkovich): “When you put Mr. Punch on, there’s no taking him off. ”

The Punch (Tom Ashworth) and Judy (Miles Taber) show.

MR. PUNCH is the story of a young man (Miles Taber) reminiscing about a life-changing summer when as a Boy (Connor Merkovich/Sean Eaton,) despite grumbling and protesting, his parents sent him away to spend the summer at His Grandpa’s (Dana Kelly, Jr.) Grandpa runs a fair by the sea with The Boy’s hunchback Uncle (Kerr Seth Lordygan.) The young parents laugh at The Boy’s desire to stay with them and cut even deeper by adding that Grandpa might eat him for supper.

Settled by the English seaside, the Boy spends most of his time with the fair’s main attraction: Mr. Punch. “Families are supposed to love each other,” he whines while watching Mr. Punch torturing his newborn. The star miniature obeys the little master. Suddenly, flowers bloom on the tiny stage. The sun rises. But the Creature takes a 360 degree turn to spew a “IT’S MYYY WOOORRRLLLD TOO!” so convincing it blew the house down. Think before you enter. Disneyland’ small world might never ever feel the same. It is a Mr. Punch’s world and Mr. Punch does whatever the hell he wants.

The Rogue Artists place several screens on a multi-leveled stage to mirror the fragmented world of the graphic novel. Words. Fleeting faces. Shadows. Hypnotic video and music invoke Neil Gaiman’s unruly imagination, famous for pulling the viewer in several directions all at once. The recurring scene of a beating is played as comedy and/or tragedy by giant puppets, tiny puppets, shadow puppets or was it…? In Neil Gaiman’s world, the comfort of lines drawn between good and bad, reality and fantasy, puppets and humans is pulled from us and we are left in the cold with nobody to believe in and nothing to hold on to. “Adults lie. But not always.” Even when Grandpa takes The Boy fishing, a gurgling sound and the image of a giant hook descending into murky waters loom over the tender moment.

Grandpa (Dana Kelly, Jr) and the nurse (Nina Silver.)

The production is so innovative I had to ask The Rogues where they come from. I couldn’t believe it when they told me this grandguignolesque and gargantuesque theater feast was made in L.A., not because we’re not capable or deserving of it but because of the lack of an audience for live theater in our city. I hope they will stay. We need their brand of “Hyper-theater, an innovative hybrid of theater traditions, puppetry, mask work, dance, music, and modern technology.”

Sometimes, hyper-stylization can eat at the heart of the story. In the end, Mr. Punch’s boundless vitality does steal the show from the Grandpa, Uncle and other human characters who, despite being performed by accomplished actors, suffer from displaying more of the same behaviors in scenes that sometimes lacked dramatic tension. I felt so petty finding flaws with a show that animates four-legged creatures with such inventiveness and humor that I turned to my guest, Taco contributor Erick Huerta, for a second opinion. Erick didn’t share my frustration. A Neil Gaiman devotee, Erick enjoyed every moment of the show. Because IT’S MMYYY REEEEVVIIEEEEW, I will say that it’s when they show rather than tell that the play mesmerizes with its multi-media extravaganza of devil-sheeps, deceptive projections, puppet gore and miniature sex.

Among the humans, the Mermaid (Nina Silver) stood out maybe because she was the only one who didn’t wear a mask, because her feet, like her fate, were bound and because she addressed us. Once again, the Rogues demonstrate their intimate understanding of Neil Gaiman’s dark humor by involving the audience in Mr. Punch’s dangerous games. When they popped the fatal question to us at the end, I couldn’t say a word. To my surprise, some people in the audience already had answers to the complex riddle MR. PUNCH turned out to be. If you have one too, let me know.

Please note August 8th through the 10th are DARK, I believe it means these shows are restricted for puppet audiences. Note to humans: Regardless of your age, take some blood pressure medication before the show, turn off your cell phones and turn on your pacemaker. Steal one from your relatives if you have too. Remember, it’s a puppet show.

The Boy’s Uncle (Kerr Seth Lordygan) and the Mermaid (Nina Silver).

“Mr. Punch” is a co-production of The Rogue Artists Ensemble and the Bootleg Theater. Through August 31st at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90057. General Admission: $25.00. Students/Seniors with ID: $18.00. Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm. Sundays at 4pm. Dark the weekend of August 8th. For more information go to http://www.rogueartists.org and http://www.bootlegtheater.com.

Directed by Sean T. Cawelti. Adapted by Sean T. Cawelti, Miles Taber and the Rogues. Scenic Design by Joel Daavid. Costume Design by Kerry Hennessy. Make Up Design by Ben Phelps. Mask Design by Patrick Rubio. Puppet Design by Joyce Hutter. Lighting Design by Mel Domingo. Sound Design by John Nobori. Video Design by Brian White. For full cast and crew go to http://www.rogueartists.org.

Back in the paint shop: The Baby, The Doctor and Mr. Punch. Photo found on http://www.myspace.com/rogueartistsensemble.

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