THEATER | Improbable’s “The Devil and Mister Punch”: Work, in progress

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Red Eye Theater’s annual New Works 4 Weeks festival is coming up, and co-artistic-director Miriam Must has asked me not to review the works in progress. I agreed to that last year—and then sort of reneged. So this year I’m going again, but I’ve promised to write nothing whatsoever about the works in progress.

I’m sorry to be attending the performances under those terms, since to me, there’s no more interesting work to think about and write about than work in progress. If a piece is done, well, it’s done. You can think, talk, and write about the piece with other theatergoers and with the artists, but the piece has attained its final form. A work in progress is a living thing, and it seems to me that’s the best possible moment for constructive criticism.

Last weekend the company Improbable presented The Devil and Mister Punch at the Walker Art Center, calling it a work in progress. It’s a fascinating, thorny piece that paces around its central narrative in an almost Cubist manner, changing shades and perspectives as it goes. The story is that of Punch, the famously abusive puppet, who finally goes too far and offs his wife Judy and their infant child (among others). Finally called to account for his centuries of bad behavior, he descends into Hell and has an encounter with the eponymous demon.

The London-based company are master puppeteers, and demonstrate a flair for deadpan vaudeville timing with a distinctly macabre flavor. Some of the best parts of The Devil and Mister Punch are seeming non sequiturs, like a bull’s amorous encounter with a matador; the company further unsettles viewers with startling changes in scale and tone, and with compelling but creepy long pauses. Both performers and audience were situated on the stage of the McGuire Theater, and at the performances’ completion, the curtain rose to reveal a final twist: the theater seats were filled with a motley assortment of puppets placed there by the wicked geniuses of Bedlam Theatre.

The Devil and Mister Punch is a great show as is—maybe it should just remain a work in progress, indefinitely morphing. Really, I was being a little disingenuous above when I said that a “done” piece is simply done: that’s the beauty of live theater. All work is really work in progress, and you never set foot in the same river twice.

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