Fringe Preview – Trans-Atlantic puppet mania in The Devil and Mister Punch

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With over 200 shows to choose from in 2011, the Philadelphia Live Arts and Fringe Festival has grown in scale and achieved international status, along with those in Edinburgh and Dublin. (Libby told you recently about the Edmonton, Alberta Fringe.) Among the most highly anticipated offerings this year is the world premier of The Devil and Mister Punch–a reworking of the historical Punch and Judy puppet show combining puppets with live actors, by London’s Improbable, one of the world’s leading forces in experimental theater.

Punch and Julian Crouch in “The Devil and Mister Punch,” photo courtesy of Improbable. 

Co-founded in 1996 by Julian Crouch–who designed and co-directed the current Broadway musical The Addams Family—Improbable had a previous hit in the US with Shockheaded Peter. The Devil and Mister Punch, commissioned jointly by the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and The Barbican, London, promises to be another smash for Improbable.

Punch and Judy’s origins can be traced back to Italy, in the 16th-century commedia dell’arte characters of Pulcinella (the name refers to the character’s beaked nose and comes from the Italian “pulchino” or chick) and his wife Joan. Originally performed by itinerant troupes of live actors, by the 17th century the figures would become marionettes, and later glove-puppets, introduced to England by Italian puppet master Pietro Gimonde (aka ‘Signor Bologna’) during the Restoration period of Charles II.

Pulcinella (or Punch) and his beaked nose; photo courtesy of Improbable.

The anglicized Mr. Punch is a brutish and raucous anarchist, portrayed as a squawking, hook-nosed, pot-bellied hunchback with a jutting curved chin and a wicked sense of humor; he carries a stick as large as himself, which he uses frequently on Judy and their fellow puppets. The irreverent Punch enjoyed such improbable popularity as family entertainment that his English premiere, documented by famed diarist Samuel Pepys on May 9, 1662, is still widely celebrated by fans as the puppet’s official birthday.

“The Devil and Mister Punch” includes a steaming crocodile, and puppets inspired by 19th-century New York puppeteer/showman Gus White; photo courtesy of Improbable.

The Devil and Mister Punch references Punch and Judy’s stock characters and props, while adding a new dimension—the story of the usually unseen puppeteers and a pair of desperate Vaudeville-era producers, whose show goes wildly off-course. Done in collaboration with American puppeteers (from Basil Twist’s company) and musicians (from Dan Zanes and Friends), the darkly comic trans-Atlantic show continues a long-standing institution that was seen not only in Europe, but also in 18th-century America, by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Staged in a giant Victorian armoire, “The Devil and Mister Punch” features secret openings, surprise appearances, and live music of the jug-band era; photo courtesy of Improbable.

You can catch the 90-minute production, from September 8-16, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street. For tickets, visit the website at www.livearts-fringe.org, call the box office at (215) 413-1318, or stop by the Festival headquarters at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street.

Tags

christ church neighborhood house, commedia dell'arte, improbable, philadelphia live arts and fringe festival, prince theater, punch and judy, the devil and mister punch

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