The House’s new puppet show is captivating, if not always coherent.
Puppetry can be downright magical. It’s not simply the animation of mundane materials, though that’s nothing to sniff at—a gifted puppeteer can make even the simplest of puppets come to thrilling life. Much of the beauty of puppetry lives in the constant reminder that, suspended though our disbelief may be, there’s something behind the curtain pulling the strings. We can almost completely forget that someone’s in charge, but always in the corner of one’s mind is the knowledge that a mastermind is hidden, keeping everything together so that we can let go.
The single biggest problem with A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch, a wildly uneven but worthwhile world premiere from the House Theatre, is that it often feels like there’s no one holding the strings at all. There’s much to admire about director Shade Murray’s production of Kara Davidson’s play, which is also worthy of esteem. But neither the production nor the script ever seem to home in on what sits at the heart of the story, or even on the mechanics of what, exactly, is happening. It’s never boring, and occasionally affecting, but to switch to another metaphor entirely, it feels a bit like the inmates are running the asylum.
In one sense, that’s fitting. Mister Punch attempts to deconstruct the familiar, usually violent antics of the titular puppet (an Anglicized take on the Pulcinella figure in commedia dell’arte) through the person of Pietro (Adrian Danzig), an Italian puppeteer, and Charlotte (Sarah Cartwright), a young girl who becomes his bottler (read: assistant). Pietro’s damaging but non-violent behavior paints him as the parallel to Punch, and the title would suggest that he serves as the play’s focus. But it’s Charlotte, who gets forced into boy drag faster than you can say overused plot device, who really commands attention. It’s through Charlotte that we experience Pietro’s brilliance, his flaws, his temper, his cruelty and his kindness. It’s through Charlotte, not Pietro, that these puppets really come to life.
Fittingly, it’s Cartwright who gives Mister Punch its most potent spark. It’s often difficult to ascertain exactly what’s at stake or to connect with the story on an emotional level, but nearly all the moments in which clarity strikes or empathy swells are tied to Cartwright’s beautiful performance. Charlotte’s overall journey is nearly as unclear as those of the other characters—the ensemble performers, including Echaka Agba, Carolyn Hoerdemann, Michael E. Smith and other equally reliable talents, are delightful but poorly served by the play. But while the lack of clarity and focus seems to weigh the production down elsewhere, when Cartwright’s involved, it’s difficult to really complain. She’s just that good. What’s going on? No idea, but man, is she great.
There’s more to praise, of course. Davidson knows her way around a sentence, and while dialects waver quite a bit, the language is always musical and engaging. Murray keeps the story, such as it is, clicking along at a nimble pace, and he and fight choreographer David Woolley stage a genuinely terrifying bit of stage violence made all the more impressive by its simplicity. As always with the House, the designs are largely stunning, particularly the costumes (Izumi Inaba) and puppets (Jesse Mooney-Bullock). It’s all solid, colorful, and compelling.
It just doesn’t add up to much. Davidson and Murray aren’t short on ambition, and Davidson’s got all the ingredients she needs for a terrific, and surprising, piece of theater. Still, Cartwright’s performance aside, the end result feels a bit like a hand puppet at rest. It’s beautiful, certainly, and promises future enjoyment, but for now, it’s just a bit empty.
The House Theatre of Chicago. By Kara Davidson. Directed by Shade Murray. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15 minutes; one intermission.