For the uninitiated: Punch and Judy shows are an old theatrical tradition in which two puppets represent a constantly feuding old couple. In most of the comic sketches, the husband Punch tends to clobber his wife, sometimes with large, unwieldy instruments. Most historians accept that the form dates back to 15th century Italy and the commedia dell’ arte character Punchinello, who carried around a “slapstick.” (This wooden baton would later inspire a whole genre of physical comedy.) The Punch and Judy dynamic has come under fire in more enlightened times, now that people tend not to find humor in wife beating.
Who would ever have thought that these characters might take a break from their usual knockabout activities for some quiet introspection? That’s right, everybody’s favorite pre-Renaissance puppets appear onstage in human form and struggle to set aside their problems in NaCl Theatre Company’s exhilarating production of The Confessions of Punch and Judy. Is this a sign of our politically correct times? Hardly; the company is too smart to soften any of the edges of the quarrelsome couple. Instead, director Raymond Bobgan, Tannis Kowalchuk (Judy), and Ker Wells (Punch) — all of whom also share the writing credit — deconstruct what fascinates audiences about Punch and Judy in a funny, fascinating, sometimes tender meditation on the nature of love.
Tawdry blue and red curtains divide the stage into two sections; a table with a bright yellow tablecloth and a vibrant pot of sunflowers on it stands center stage. (The ensemble shares the credit for the striking set design.) Punch and Judy prop themselves up in their respective seats like marionettes and sing a little song for our entertainment. Before too long, they start berating each other for speeding up the tempo, which leads to a string of arguments pulled from the clichés of modern romance. It turns out that Punch is a frustrated novelist who blames his spouse for his lack of success, while Judy is emotionally distant and uncommunicative. In one scene, she tries nudging Punch into taking ballroom dance classes to compensate for their waning love life.
These snippets are interspersed with more stylized sequences of dance, puppetry, and vaudeville; the combination creates some hilarious moments. When he’s not comically thrashing his wife with a giant blow-up hammer, Punch is infuriatingly passive aggressive, reading aloud from his novel passages that indicate his dissatisfaction in their relationship. Bobgan and Kowalchuk handle the various styles of acting with grace and charm. They’re versatile and engaging performers — who, incidentally, give away their Canadian training every time they pronounce the word “about.”
Bobgan provides crisp, creative direction and beautiful choreography; at one point, he makes highly inventive use of a bedsheet. Trad Burns’ and Steve Mack’s lighting design of muted blue and red suit the performance nicely, as do Holly Holsinger’s rather giddy costumes. (In one section, Punch’s face is painted on like that of a ventriloquist’s doll.) Sound technician Ruben Saanich serves up big-top music that contributes to the carnivalesque atmosphere. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, The Confessions of Punch and Judy is highly enjoyable as a knowing portrait of a rough-and-tumble kind of love.