Wmc's Vigorous Production Of 'Punch' Is All Too Literal

Puppet Show Confronts Theater Conventions

October 09, 1991|By Tim Weinfeld | Tim Weinfeld,Contributing theater critic

Western Maryland College theater got its season off with a bang lastweekend with a production of Aurand Harris' "Punch and Judy."

In this fast-paced, energetically performed, hour-long adaptation of thewell-known puppet show, traditional puppets that open the show latermaterialize as live actors in costume and makeup.

The play's title is somewhat misleading and would be more accurate as "Punch." This is his story, his battle and his victory.

His wife, Judy, represents only one of the many forces in conflict with Punch's unbridled hedonism.

It is supposed to be a play for children. But in a very real sense, this adaptation is also a rebellion against conventions -- those of children's theater.

There is no real story line for young eyes, ears and minds to follow and to provide a structural road map for novice audiences. There is a great deal of near-real violence, which gets in the way of the text and performance.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no hero or major character with which children can identify, leaving the production little more to offer than mindless Saturday morning cartoons. Theater is capable of so much more.

Aurand Harris was one of our most prolific and well-known author of plays for children. Twenty-five of his scripts -- many of them excellent -- were published from 1945 to 1976.

Director Jean Burgess and the troupe provided a rich and lasting experience for young audiences last year with their production of "Androcles and the Lion." "Punch" is less successful.

There are excellent performances by most of the actors within the confines of two-dimensional, stereotypical characters.

Todd Robinson's Devil, Jennifer Dean's Judy, Scott Grocki's Doctor and Tracie Boggess' Professor were all appropriately and humorously menacing.

As Toby, a canine character, Lea Stanley provided the clearest link between stage and audience. Her excellent singing, dancing and chorus-like commentary held the productiontogether.

Sara Lundberg, as the manic and driven Punch, was effective with what she was given. Unfortunately, she was given too little.

The constantly high energy level, fast pacing and unrelenting loudness communicated well a part of the character. Potential warmth and gentleness from Punch toward the audience was never taken advantageof, and that important side of the character was never realized.

The beheading and hanging scenes were problematic. Although attempts were made to soften these blows and even make them humorous, both hadshocking and breathtaking effects inconsistent with the rest of the production.

The wonderful Rube Goldberg contraption that served asthe gallows could be the inspiration for the term "gallows humor." But it could not counteract the sickening sight of a live actor hanging lifelessly on stage.

Ira Domser's gold-and-crimson enlargement of a "toy theater," Steve Parson's bright and mobile lighting and Joyce Fritz's wonderful costumes contribute greatly.

The use of the fabric enclosures for the ghosts was reminiscent of the imaginative costumes employed by the remarkable Pilobolus Dance Company, and it was a shame they were not used to better effect.

The songs, or more appropriately, the snippets of songs, are well done and well accompanied by Steve Zumbrum on the piano.

Everyone will enjoy the work of Todd Robinson and Heather Cotter as Hector, the dancing horse.

"Punch and Judy" continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Alumni Hall at Western Maryland College.

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