In the interest of full disclosure, let me start by saying that I come from a family of Punners. We think of word play as sword play and often fence just to keep our wits sharp.
I remember vividly the day I learned to Pun. My father would probably rank it among his top 5 proudest parenting moments. As I recall, he teared up a little. So, needless to say, when I saw the description for Blacktop Theatre Company’s Pun: (n) a Play on Words, I jumped at the chance to see it. Having now done so, I can tell you two things: 1) I enjoyed it. 2) My father would have liked it too, but he probably would not have cried.
Pun is a silly play, but then again, aren’t all puns? Its best moments are a few well written bits that toy with grammatical rules like “i before e, except after c” which they take to some fun places. There is one particularly well written pun on the double meaning of the word “article” (you’ll have to see it to know what I’m talking about).
The show dabbles in a few comedic styles (sometimes to the detriment of cogency) jumping from a basic but well performed rewording of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First”, to an excellent Shakespeare spoof, to a decent Jay and Silent Bob impersonation. These transitions can feel a little bit schizophrenic, but they also keep the show from getting boring.
Pun, written by Aaron Fisher and directed by Patrick Magill, imagines the world of the dictionary, where each word is a person whose character traits are defined by their name. So, for instance, the play is set in a bar which is managed by barmaid, who’s name (and word) is “Barmaid”.
It would be a simple enough idea, but the playwright has set out to explore the politics of a world made up only of words, which means that he has enough material to fill the hour. The bar turns out to be an exclusive hangout for Keywords, the words at the top of a dictionary page that help you figure out where you are in the dictionary (this key plot point, by the way, didn’t start to stick until about half way through the play, which caused a little confusion for my companions and me).
Their world is shaken up by the arrival of a newcomer who threatens to undermine their elite status. The words humorously struggle with their own identities in the context of this potential change. I don’t want to give away too much, but needless to say, hijinks ensue.
The fact that this play is able to avoid preachy allegory is one of its strongest selling points. Sure, the action of the play is full of references to immigration reform, elitism, and even terrorism, but the play is not about those things, and as such is able to avoid getting bogged down by any political statement.
This play is meant to be fun and fluff, and these allegorical moments are played up for their comedic value which keeps the play from being weighed down by any semblance of heavy handedness. That so much of the play is able to keep this tongue-in-cheek sensibility so much of the time is the only thing that keeps it afloat. The asides to the audience, especially by the duo of Insanity and Bullshit (Mark Jennings and Chris Aldrich) were perhaps the funniest part of the play.
The cast oscillates between excellent and unconvincing. There are a few standout performances, namely the two listed above as well as Creepy (Andrew Konche) and Afterthought (Tristan Griffin). The rest were fine, though there were more than a few moments of awkward timing.
The dialogue and action also had a few sizable holes. This gave the show the sense of being some loosely tied together bits about dictionary life, more than a coherent story. I guess this was okay in the end, but I was hoping for a little more constancy throughout.
As with many fringe shows, this is a play I would love to see again after two more revisions. There are some moments of excellent writing and some parts that drag a bit. There are ideas about this zany little world of words that could have been fleshed out and explored more. For instance, I noticed that every time they used a word, they are also, theoretically, saying the name of someone they know. This was an idea they played with some but there was some more comedic “gold in them-thar woods”, if they had just kept digging.
I certainly enjoyed the play, (though it’s not my pick of fringe), so if you are a punner like me, then it’s worth catching. And, if you go, you should definitely bring your dad. I wish I had.
PUN: (n) a play on words has 3 more performances at the Warehouse, 645 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC.
Josh rates this a 4, out of a possible top rating of 5.
See more Fringe reviews here.