A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch House Theatre of Chicago

"Very smart and progressive.... Another gutsy world premiere from The House!" - Chicago Tribune

"A gifted cast that deftly finesses aspects of puppetry, clowning, farce, dance and music, and, best of all, introduces audiences to the exceptionally beguiling talent of a young actress named Sarah Cartwright." - Chicago Sun-Times

At its most divine, "Mister Punch" threads the needle between the infamous puppet show's hyper violence and our own discontents, transforming the sinister Machiavellian into a sympathetic antihero - NewCity Chicago

"Wildly and wonderfully entertaining!" - ChiIL Live

"A virtuosic visual treat!" - Chicago Theatre Review

"..stage craft and the skilled manic action marked by numerous costume and set changes was a marvel as the pace was breathtaking.. a sophisticated theatrical work that delivers" - Chicagocritic.com



Until 10/23. Thu-Sat 8p; Sun 7p. $30-35.  773-769-3832



09/02/16 - 10/23/16

Fri - Sat 8p; Sun 7p; Thu 8p beginning Sep 29th

In 'Comedical Tragedy For Mister Punch,' the violent history of Punch and Judy - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 9/12/16 - "Mister Punch, - the Anglicized, swazzle-voiced derivative of the Pulcinella character of the Italian commedia dell'arte - has been a fixture at the British seaside since before there was a British seaside in the modern sense of buckets and spades, ice cream and kiddie entertainments. Especially in recent years, Mr. P has attracted critics. This is not surprising. In years past, he was known for babysitting with the aid of a stick, and even today he still can be seen smashing his wife, Judy, over the head with his signature stick.

Granted, you'll often see Judy as the primary aggressor and this is slapstick, knockabout farce in the literal sense of those words. Punch and Judy "professors" tend to defend Punch as a classic anti-authoritarian maverick in a red-and-white booth, often arguing that he moved easily across the Atlantic in the face of the Puritan lack of interest in fun. Still "Punch and Judy" is, to say the least, complex of message by today's standards.

A primer in parenting this never has been.

Ergo, Kara Davidson's "A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch," which you might reasonably call a deconstruction of that which Punch and Judy represents and that is both a show with puppets (designed by the highly creative Jesse Mooney-Bullock) and very much a live-action drama. Before you sign up the kiddies (don't), know that Davidson's work, another gutsy world premiere from the House Theatre of Chicago, includes much exploration of the violence behind the booth. Davidson, it would seem, is no big fan of Mister Punch, even though modern-day shows have rendered him more benign. She is on something a mission to point out just how unsavory his historical past has been.

Fair enough. Good idea. Indeed, as directed by Shade Murray, "Mister Punch" is a very smart and progressive meditation for savvy teens and adults on the entrenched role of violence in classic children's entertainment and, on a deeper level, on the culpability of artists themselves. Although her work is billed as a "fictional origin story," I think Davidson also wants to argue for the moral bankruptcy of hiding behind your character - in this case a wife- and child-beater - and to further suggest that the old story of Mister Punch was, in fact, not some reflection of the appetite for anarchic freedom of the populace, but of the mindset of the creepy puppeteers who controlled the narrative.

The chief puppeteer in this show is Pietro (Adrian Danzig) who takes on a young orphan, Charlotte (Sarah Cartwright) as a kind of mentee. At first, Charlotte seems to embrace the life of the traveling booth, but as the show unspools, so do the nightmares inside her skull, as Punch (Johnny Arena), Judy (Carolyn Hoerdemann), Joey the Clown (Joey Steakley) and the much-abused Baby (Michael E. Smith) all come to violent, full-sized life around her.

At this juncture, the piece feels like a potentially significant work in the middle of a workshop process from which a cohesive and emotionally compelling narrative has yet to emerge. It just is not ready. For the piece is, as yet, messy, overly academic and very difficult to follow. The rules of engagement are not clear, and thus you find your attention wandering, which is never ideal in a work of theater that is built around intensity. The problems lie fundamentally in the storytelling - the work feels improvisational, which is fine to a point, given the topic, but the audience ultimately is left floundering with characters that seem insufficiently cohesive of style and overly bereft of dynamic, in-the-moment connection.

That said, the show contains a knockout performance from Cartwright, clearly a formidable young talent, whose intensity does manage to hold many things together, and keeps you caring about the visual chaos before you. It really is a killer piece of acting, so to speak, and I can only imagine how interesting it will be once the script is fixed and the production rises up to meet her palpable humanity".

‘Mister Punch' taps cruelty and humanity in people, puppets - Hedy Weiss Chicago Sun Times 9/13/16. - "The House Theatre of Chicago, now celebrating the start of its 15th season, has a great gift for transforming its home in the Chopin Theatre's Upstairs space into a perfect environment for each production it creates.
For its chilling show "United Flight 232," it put us right inside the cabin of a jet plane destined for disaster. Now, with the world premiere of "A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch," we enter the world of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet theater - a form rooted in the comic types devised for the Italian commedia dell'arte, and later adapted (as in this show) in Victorian England.

That later English version featured a single puppeteer hidden inside a booth, who manipulated both the violence-prone, hook-nosed Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy. The violence of the scenario played out supposedly served as both an expose of human cruelty and a creepy form of catharsis. And thanks to Lee Keenan's set (with its red-and-white-striped booth, its curtained wooden structures suggesting marionette theaters as well as gallows, and a slew of elaborate pulley systems), Jesse Mooney-Bullock's splendid puppets and Izumi Inaba's wonderfully imaginative costumes, we are taken inside the puppet booth and the puppeteer's home workshop.
In addition, director Shade Murray has assembled a gifted cast that deftly finesses aspects of puppetry, clowning, farce, dance and music, and, best of all, introduces audiences to the exceptionally beguiling talent of a young actress named Sarah Cartwright. (Remember that name.)

The problematic element of the show (and this is frequently the case at The House) is its script. Kara Davidson has set up a potentially rich premise in "Mr. Punch," as the brutality of real life intersects with the brutality of master puppeteer Pietro (the ever graceful, wily Adrian Danzig).

Working the streets of London, Pietro encounters orphaned street urchin Charlotte (Cartwright). After forcing her to cut her beautiful long hair (to be used on a puppet head), and answer to the name of Charlie, he takes her on as something of a generally unpaid apprentice, a lookout (Pietro is ever evading "the law"), and maybe even a surrogate daughter.

Exceptionally imaginative in her own right, Charlotte begins to weave original puppet scenarios. But happy endings elude everyone in this play, including the Punch's much-abused, blimp-like baby (Michael E. Smith), and Charlotte herself, who suffers a bloody leg wound (and is stitched up in a rare act of compassion by Pietro).

Davidson's story has its moments, including deft work by Echaka Agba as Polly, a prostitute with a sense of romance; Carolyn Hoerdemann as Punch's wife, Judy, and a blind woman; Owais Ahmed as a haughty wealthy man; Will Casey as a brutal policeman, and Johnny Arena as a life-size Mister Punch. But the whole thing meanders and is need of considerable editing, greater clarity and a far stronger drive to its conclusion.

But then there is Cartwright - with her delicate yet wonderfully expressive face, her beautiful sense of movement, her total theatrical intelligence and charm. She is, all by herself, worth a visit to this flawed but ambitious show".

A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch, Max Maller, Chicago Reader 9/14/16 - "Punch, the vindictive wife-beating hand puppet, comes to life as a masked, strutting scoundrel in the House Theatre's A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch. So do his traditional friends: not just Judy but the dog, the baby, the clown, the crocodile, and the prostitute Pretty Polly (Echaka Agba). Kara Silverman has set her play in 18th-century London, where Pietro (Adrian Danzig), an immigrant puppeteer, must flee the swinging cudgel of a towering constable (the delightful Will Casey) just to eke out daily bread for himself and his sidekick, the urchin Charlotte. Sarah Cartwright is spot-on in the role, sweeping her hair out of her eyes with just the right finger, cocking her shoulders at somehow the perfect Hogarthian angle to hump a too-big bag. Izumi Inaba's costumes and Jesse Mooney-Bullock's puppet bodies and masks are finely imagined; Shade Murray directed, and Kevin O'Donnell is behind the sound design and music".

World on a Wire A Review of A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch at The House Theatre of Chicago, Kevin Greene, NewCity Chicago 9/14/16 - "In The House Theatre's world premiere of Kara Davidson's "A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch," youthful innocence comes face-to-paper-mache-face with domestic abuse, police brutality and infanticide. And that's only one of the plays Davidson's meta new work has to offer. Based on and featuring the characters of the Punch and Judy puppet shows, this coming-of-age tale blends Dickensian social realism with the hysterical absurdity of puppetry. At its most divine, "Mister Punch" threads the needle between the infamous puppet show's hyper violence and our own discontents, transforming the sinister Machiavellian into a sympathetic antihero.

Director Shade Murray keeps things moving at a solid clip during the first act and puts Lee Keenan's jungle gym set to good use, vaulting his players up, down and all around the fictional London setting. After a flurry of visual and verbal gags, "Mister Punch" takes a horrifying turn as the creations of puppet master Pietro (Adrian Danzig) come to life in the imagination of his young apprentice (Sarah Cartwright), the essential orphan upon which any good tale of nineteenth century urban redemption is based.

On the strength of Izumi Inaba's costumes (a regular parade of some of her best work that I've seen), Eleanor Kahn's props and Jesse Mooney-Bullock's puppets, "Mister Punch" descends into the hellish uncanny valley as reality becomes simultaneously disfigured and heightened. It is here that we catch our first glimpse at the cathartic power of violence and its ability to liberate us from the fixed game that is our existence.

Unfortunately, "Mister Punch" loses the thread after the intermission, becoming more Dostoyevsky than Dickens as it muses on the narcissism of artists. A meandering start to act two means much of the plot-based momentum of the first gets lost in a series of unnecessary barroom ballads. By the time the play's ambiguous anti-climax arrives, we are in great need of the kind of laughs that sustain us through the hard times. It would seem that in its current form, the comedical part of the play's title applies almost exclusively to the first half while the tragedy is reserved for the second.

Balancing these two opposing forces is not easy. Yet cutting the act break and tightening the focus (as well as the runtime) might enhance and sustain "Mister Punch" through what I hope will be a long life".

A Comedical Tragedy For Mister Punch (A World Premiere Puppet-Driven work), Tom Williams, Chicagocritic.com - "In their 15th season, The House Theatre of Chicago has a wildly ambitious puppet-filled portrait of a prodigy in peril. This is a hauntingly dark tale of the creation of the legendary Puppets Punch and Judy. Featuring terrific puppet and mask design by Jesse Mooney-Bullock,

A Comedical Tragedy For Mister Punch unfolds as a humorous very dark tale of the establishment of puppet shows in 18th Century London. Utilizing The House Theatre of Chicago's storytelling aesthetic, director Shade Murry and playwright Kara Davidson weave the efforts of Italian puppeteer Pietro (nice work by Adrian Danzig) to bring his street puppet show to London.

He is aided by Charlotte (Sarah Cartwright in a winningly charismatic performance), a young tom-boy orphan who has made a life for herself on the streets of London snatching purses and running away quickly. She wiggles her way into working for the eccentric Italian puppeteer, Pietro, by collecting coins from the crowd at the street puppet shows. She also watches out for the law. The two become partners despite Pietro's gruff and focused attention. Charlotte's wild imagination allows the violent Punch and Judy puppets to come to life.

Johnny Arena, as Mister Punch, and Carolyn Hoerdemann, as Judy, with Will Casey, as the officer, together with Echaka Agba, as Polly, all come to life as real live puppets. Joey Steakley, as Joey the clown, and Michael E. Smith as the Bum, Baby, and the Crocodile with Owais Ahmed, as the Wealthy man and the Flirt, round out the fabulous players who haunt Charlotte's world.

Pietro has problems with Charlotte's spins on his characters as he may not want his protege pulling the strings! This comic drama vividly acts out the dangers lurking in the unjust world of London. We see terrific use of hand puppets, masks and marionettes including a live-person marionette as the cruel and murderous nature of Punch and Judy is exposed. The Commedia dell'arte elements added depth and humor to the story.

I was engrossed and enchanted with the wack world of puppets in 18th Century England. The stage craft and the skilled manic action marked by numerous costume and set changes was a marvel as the pace was breathtaking. While the action wore thin as the show runs about 15 minutes too long, I was pleased and entertained by the skill of this production. This show is for teens and adults, it is a tad too dark for children. But, as an adult puppet show, A Comedical Tragedy For Mister Punch is a sophisticated theatrical work that delivers".

A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch - House Theatre of Chicago. A handful of violence, Colin Douglas, ChicagoTheatreReview.com - "Charlotte is a plucky little girl living on the streets of Victorian London, surviving however she can. One day, while watching Italian puppeteer Pietro performing his Punch and Judy show, Charlotte is offered a job by the artist, to serve as a kind of apprentice, in exchange for room and board.

In addition to learning the trade, she also acts as Professor Pietro's bottler, corralling the audience, introducing the puppet show and collecting monetary donations, or the "bottle." Pietro cuts off Charlotte's braids and transforms her into Charlie, as a way of protecting the young girl's innocence from certain underworld deviants. It's from this point that this world premiere play becomes a little muddy.

The violent nature of the Punch and Judy puppet plays, which was derived from the slapstick improvisations of 16th century commedia dell'arte, permeates this new play. Mr. Punch, the English name given to the Italian character of Punchinello, is a recreant who defies all authority.

He's a hunchbacked, hook-nosed fellow who speaks in an irritating, squawking voice. The rebellious Punch is married and, when entrusted with the care of his baby, throws the screaming child out the window. He and his wife Judy get into a knock-down-drag-out fight over this abuse, during which Mr. Punch whacks his acid-tongued spouse with his stick until she's dead. From then on, Punch has run-ins with a policeman, Pretty Polly, Joey the Clown, a crocodile, the hangman and even the devil, all of whom suffer at the hand of his slapstick.

In Kara Davidson's original play, puppets are used to tell portions of this familiar story; but there's also the real-life human actors who also breathe life into these exaggerated characters. It's in the second half of the play when the story becomes confusing and difficult to tell precisely what's happening. Fantastic puppets, expressive masks and creative costumes, all hallmarks of the House Theatre, impress and leave a lasting image.

However, it becomes unclear what exactly is happening between Pietro, played with enthusiasm by Adrian Danzig, Polly, sweetly portrayed by Echaka Agba, and Charlotte/Charlie, played with likable honesty and total commitment by Sarah Cartwright. The theatrics are, as always, most impressive, but the story becomes confusing and seems open to interpretation. There's plenty of realistic violence, bloodshed (something audiences never see in a real Punch and Judy puppet show) and even death, making this production unsuitable for younger audience members.

Other terrific portrayals come from Johnny Arena, as the humanized Mr. Punch, Carolyn Hoerdemann as the real Judy and as a Blind street singer, and Michael E. Smith as the gigantic human baby, the Alligator and others. Joey Steakley is an eerie Joey the Clown, Owais Ahmed plays a variety of rotating roles and the always reliable Will Casey is frightening as the browbeating Police Officer.

While this original play, staged with as much focus and historical accuracy as possible by Shade Murray, impresses with its visuals and energy, there's a point at which it leaves the audience in the dark. Applause to a tireless Sarah Cartwright, who seldom leaves the stage, playing a convincing street kid with spunk, determination and valor. Diction and a few mumbled lines, combined with a slightly confusing storyline, prevent theatergoers from fully understanding the play. However, Ms. Cartwright is always reliable and comes shining through. In the end, impressively creative costumes, by Izumi Inaba, and beautifully detailed puppets and masks, by Jesse Mooney-Bullock, make this productions a virtuosic visual treat".




Charlotte, a young orphan, has made a life for herself thieving on the street of London.  She wiggles her way into employment for an eccentric Italian puppeteer, Pietro, collecting coins from his crowds adn watching out for the law.  They quickly become an efficient pair under Pietro's gruff and focused attention.  As their partnership flourishes, so does Charlotte's vivide imagination.  Soon the violent Punch and Judy puppets jump to life as she conjures up her own spins on the classic tales.  But Pietero may not want his protege pulling the strings.


Reality blurs as live actors, marionettes, and hand puppets intersect each other. Each tells a little of the other's story, and imaginations can run wild.


Kara Davidson

Shade Murray

Adrian Danzig, Johnny Arena, Sarah Cartwright, Will Casey, Joey Steakley, Carolyn Hoerdemann, Echaka Agba, Michael E. Smith, Owais Ahmed

Lee Keenan (Scenic Designer); Izumi Inaba (Costume Designer); Mike Durst (Lighting Designer); Kevin O'Donnell (Sound Designer/Recorded Music); John Fournier (Live Music Composer); Jesse Mooney-Bullock (Puppet Designer); David Wooley (Choreographer); Adam Goldstein (Dialect Coach); Mary Williamson (Makeup Effects); Eleanor Kahn (Properties Designer); Brian DesGranges (Stage Manager); Christine Mayland Perkins (Asst Director); Joyanna Cox (Asst Costume Designer); Grover Hollway (Asst Sound Designer); Emily Breyer (Asst Pupper Designer); Colin Morgan (Asst Properties Designer); Jon Beal (Asst Choreographer); Rachael Koplin (Asst Stage Manager); Emily Swanson (Wardrobe Supervisor); Bobbig Huggins (Technical Director); Jericka Hucke (Costume Manager); John Kelly (Master Electrician); Josh Light (Production Mgmt Intern)

Tags: Theater, American, 2016