Punch – That’s the Way We Do It
Written and directed by Wyckham Avery
Produced by dog and pony dc
Reviewed by Miranda Hall
Welcome to Adventure Seating 101. dog and pony dc’s production of Punch is an in-your-face – and frequently an in-your-lap – homage to vulgarity, violence, and questionable satire. If you’re in the mood for some crude, late-night entertainment, pull a trash bag over your clothes (if you’re sitting in the front two rows, they’re already attached to your seat), grab a beer (they’ll make sure you have one in the prologue), and get ready to jump into an evening of Fringe-esque debauchery.
Replacing heightened language with elevated middle fingers, dog and pony’s self-proclaimed “irreverent satire” reexamines Punch and Judy -a children’s show that originated in 16th Century Italy. Using masks, puppets, and enough stage blood to satisfy a run of Titus Andronicus, the play restages the story of Punch’s psychotic, tyrannical quest for sex and world domination. Muttering about sausages and marching over blaring punk music, Punch staggers from scene to scene raping his wife, killing his child, dissecting his doctor, and trying to have sex with just about anything and anyone he can find. Luckily it only lasts 50 minutes.
The actors themselves generated a fierce energy. Whether it was the exuberance of opening night or the sheer thrill of dowsing their stage partners with stage blood and spit, the cast exploded in the Mead Theatre Lab. From the prologue, when Joey, played by Josh Drew, pounced onstage with the bawdy gusto of a Shakespearean fool to the final scene when Dan Van Hoozer as Punch nearly exploded with an unchecked felicity, the play shivered with an intense dynamism.
And, true to its roots, the play exists in a fiercely colorful universe. Colin Bills’ set, a person-sized puppet stage complete with a bright red curtain and changeable backdrops, uses primary colors, bold outlines, and paper-y materials to give the world a Crayola-grunge feel. And the puppets in the show are fabulous – unabashedly homemade and wildly inventive. The most sympathetic character of the show was a copper-green dog puppet with brooms, paint rollers, and chair legs for feet and pocket book clasps for a back.
But for all of its assets, the play itself is relentlessly violent. Punch struggles to differentiate between being absurd for the sake of absurdity and exaggerating the absurd for the sake of social satire. Though the cast acknowledges the fakeness of it all, the lack of consequences for Punch’s vulgar impulses makes the play almost unbearable. The shock value works at times – watching someone jump rope with another character’s intestines is a delightfully twisted spectacle- but at other moments it is just too much. Staging a rape for the sake of comedy is intolerable and tasteless. And the dead baby jokes aren’t any more impressive.
In fact, the play’s comedy feels more like an inside joke than sophisticated satire. Perhaps the play’s opening night audience was an anomaly because it consisted of dog & pony’s artistic team and the actors’ close friends and family, but every time the audience laughed, the pleasure seemed to derive from watching their friends do ridiculous things rather than from the play’s comedic integrity. Though writer and director Wyckham Avery suggests in her program note that the actors’ “resilience” redeems the play’s cruelty, their energy alone isn’t reason enough to endure the production.
It’s true that Punch is known traditionally for his extreme brutality, but such violence needs to fit into a larger conversation if it expects to ridicule an audience’s notions of the violence-comedy interplay. Though Punch tries to actively interact with the audience by sitting in their laps, asking them questions, and leading them in several rousing choruses of “eat, f–k, kill,” the show is still stifling crude. For all of the play’s comedic efforts, it takes a supreme disenchantment with human benevolence to look past the jokes at their underlying commentary. Perhaps the point of the play is to have no point – no consequences, no resolution – but that is a frail foundation for a piece of theater. Unless you’re comfortable reacting to violence by contributing to it, you might as well stay home.
For mature audiences only.
Running Time: 50 minutes
When: Remaining shows: Nov 13 – 22. Thurs at 8 pm, Fri & Sat at 8 & 10 pm
Where: Flashpoint – Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St NW, Washington, DC
Tickets: $15. Order online.