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A CurtainUp Review

Confessions of Punch and Judy
By Brad Bradley

Tannis Kowalchuk and Ker Wells
Tannis Kowalchuk and Ker Wells (Photo: Raimundo )
This remarkably eclectic show begins with a pair of a cappella songs by the well-known eponymous characters, in each case the companion accompanying with non-verbal human sounds non unlike the carnival calliope recording provided as warm-up music before the show begins. The minimalist uncredited set is effective for what is to unfold: two comfortable armchairs are separated by a small round table with a vase of flowers. Here is a comfortable den where she is garrulously engaged in the daily paper and he, rather more sedately, in a book.

The framing of the set is draped with colorful curtains to suggest an enlarged puppet stage, for of course Punch and Judy characters were born to puppetry, and usually are depicted in such form. Here, instead, they are a human couple, although one that takes on a variety of behavior styles and borrow from a number of theatrical traditions. Included are not only the cartoonish interactions that often follow the exclamatory and often violent behavior seen in such films and comic strips, but also suggestions of an array of theatrical lineage from comedia dell’arte and mime to twentieth century icons including Tennessee Williams (in the characters’ anguish, especially), Eugene Ionesco (in the outlandishness), and Samuel Beckett (in the rhythm). Even edgier theater forces including Robert Wilson (usually associated with opera) and Merce Cunningham (perhaps once the enfant terrible of modern dance) seem to have an influence on the behavior and concerns of this post-modern Punch and Judy.

Punch and Judy’s conflicted emotions are very much of concern here, and some of the best scenes are solo moments which allow one or the other to reflect on their inner thoughts, he while telling the story of Adam and Eve as illustrated by carpenter tools, and she while describing a Greek myth as she chops vegetables. Both Tannis Kowalchuk (Judy) and Ker Wells (Punch) are versatile performers, easily making the countless transitions of style and tone that the project demands.

The vocal variety is as remarkable as the visual theatrics. Counterpointed chants invoke an Eastern serenity, and silent screams imbue rage, usually depicted in drama very noisily, to say the least, but here with a decidedly pensive note.

Although one small child was in the audience of my viewing and seemed to have a fairly good time, adults should be warned that the script includes enough raw language and sexual reference to make this show an unlikely choice for most kids. Here perhaps even a bow to David Mamet should be acknowledged in the material, for his generous use of expletives clearly impacts the tone of the dialogue.

The press release for The Confessions of Punch and Judy promises us a hilarious, poignant and surreal look at the dynamics of long-term relationships. Of the latter two qualities, I concur without qualification; I also must acknowledge that for many in the audience, even the promises of hilarity were met. In any event, the remarkably agile work on display is always fascinating, and often is compelling as well.

The Confessions of Punch and Judy
Created and written by:Tannis Kowalchuk, Ker Wells & Raymond Bobgan
Directed by Raymond Bobgan
Cast: Tannis Kowalchuk, Ker Wells
Costume Design: Holly Holsinger
Lighting Design: Trad A. Burns & Steve Mack
Light and Sound Technician: Ruben Saanich
NaCl Theatre, The Cleveland Public Theatre & Number 11 Theatre at HERE Arts Center, 145 Avenue of the Americas, 212-868-4444
Running time: 77 minutes (no intermission). n
From 2/06/05 to 2/20/05
Wed - Sun at 7pm
Tickets: $15

Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on February 4 preview performance
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