The Confessions of Punch and Judy
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
February 2, 2005
In this theatrical, absurdist, dance-like, puppet-utilizing, beautiful study of couplehood, Punch and Judy are real human beings, bonded together in a long-term, frequently dysfunctional marriage. They are puppeteered by no one save each other. We witness them on a night when their marital discourse stymies, fires wild, and fights dirty. The actors, Ker Wells as Punch and Tannis Kowalchuk as Judy, are master craftsmen of movement art, and only in the surreal moments when they switch the argument from one of over-analyzation and loaded inquiry to one of gesture and physicality do we ever feel hope that Punch and Judy might get somewhere. Indeed, we meet the couple at the top as they sing a blissful duet together, but the bliss is a thin faeade hiding tension. There is fear between Punch and Judy, as between so many couples that have traveled through life together for years. The great question between them—“Who are you?”—remains answered to the satisfaction of neither.
The slapstick banter between this couple’s puppet namesakes almost seems healthier than what these human beings say to one other in direct conversation. Wells and Kowalchuk sharply turn the realistic dialogue into the familiar, stylized give-and-take at various intervals throughout the show. Compare and contrast the dialogue from different points in the performance:
Punch and Judy as a realistic couple:
J: I thought you were going to bed.
P: I was.
P: I’m not anymore.
P: Thank you. I have to work tomorrow.
J: So do I.
P: Maybe you should go to bed, then.
J: I’m not sleepy.
P: Maybe if you lay silently in the dark for a few hours you’d feel sleepy.
Punch and Judy, more traditional:
J: Something’s different, Mr. Punch.
P: Is it a new haircut?
P: You’ve lost weight?
P: New lipstick.
J: No (hums "Rockabye Baby")
P: I think she’s trying to tell me she’s knocked up.
P I’ll knock you up! (bang bang bang)
J: But I’m in the family way!
P: You’re in everybody’s bloody way! (bang bang bang)
The Punch and Judy we are more familiar with score laughs because they invest in nothing—pain, emotions, life events are all excuses to pratfall. The two archetypes are profoundly altered when presented as humans on the sinking vessel of their marriage—plugging up holes with one hand, drilling new holes with the other. We watch them invest in every aspect of their opposite, and as a result, we see them exposed to inner hurt that doesn’t have a slapstick reaction built in. With no clear guide what to say and do, the characters distance themselves from one another, and only surreal scenes using sheets, masks, monologues, music, dance, and a variety of puppets are able to bring out truths lacking any other means of expression.
The spectacle of The Confessions of Punch and Judy is fast-paced and starkly profound. Director Raymond Bobgan has meticulously mapped out the feel of the show down to the most delicate details. The color scheme of the production—blue for Punch, red for Judy—is garishly festive and perfect. Stress-busting, kinetic activities for both characters lend a layer of symbolism that enhances the world onstage without smothering it. Judy is a merciless vegetable chopper, while Punch takes a hammer from his trusty tool kit and bangs around the house. Punch’s puppet-show monologue about the Garden of Eden story starring Punch and Judy as hammers is a textbook example of the transformative power of the perfect prop.
Wells and Kowalchuk commit fully to each game the couple plays—and really, that is how the show moves from one moment to the other. It is a powerful parable for any relationship. The glue holding everything together is only as strong as the ability of every participant to immediately recognize and excel at the game chosen, and change the game when a disadvantage is felt. A memorable sequence begins when the couple squabbles about the mind-reading ability seemingly required of each other. Ambiguous signals are continuously issued and missed. The scene morphs into an interpretive dance of bizarre gesture, paralleling their inability to communicate. Translative speech is added, and it becomes clear that though their gestures are easily confusing, Punch and Judy are sending out messages of grave urgency, desperate to reverse the doomed direction of their marriage. The two actors use grace and precision handling these sequences, and have tremendous connection at all moments. As performers, Wells and Kowalchuk listen to one another, paradoxically becoming perfect at portraying a couple that doesn’t.
At the end, when all games have stopped, Punch and Judy find enough harmony to allow them to go to bed one more night together. Finally, they seem able to have a meaningful exchange. Punch asks, “Are we monsters?” They admit they are. They pledge to never fight, always be in love, and let Peace reign. Then they laugh; this is their private joke. The Confessions of Punch and Judy powerfully portrays humans that have bounced back like puppets again and again, but this Punch and Judy have emotional bruises to show for it.