Mr. Punch lives. Nick Jones and Raja Azar's ridiculous pirate-puppet rock musical "Jollyship the Whiz-Bang" is a plot-free, fury-filled gremlin that walks, talks and wields a club like a vintage Punch and Judy show, but with musical chops considerably more modern (think recent Modest Mouse).
Mr. Punch lives. Nick Jones and Raja Azar’s ridiculous pirate-puppet rock musical “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang” is a plot-free, fury-filled gremlin that walks, talks and wields a club like a vintage Punch and Judy show, but with musical chops considerably more modern (think recent Modest Mouse). The whacked-out tuner is exactly as much musical as you can stuff into the tiny Ars Nova, but the close quarters just make it feel like the cast party started early. As Punch himself might say, that’s the way to do it.
For the show to get under way, first mate Skeevy (the nonpuppet Azar, who handles accordion and keyboards) needs to know where the Whiz-Bang is headed. “Forward!” crows Captain Clamp (voiced by co-creator Jones, also on vocals and guitar). “What other direction is there?”
And that is most of what you need to know about “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang.” It goes forward, usually at high speed, without much thought as to where it will eventually end up, leaving the audience to grab hold of something and water ski behind. The crew is off to Party Island, at least in theory — they’ve been sailing for five years, always believing Clamp’s assertion that its shores are but a week away. Now, though, there’s talk among the crew of lowering the Jolly Roger and finding another vocation, which sounds like mutiny to the captain.
It’s important to understand that “Jollyship” is, first and foremost, about goofing around. Characters don’t hold up under analysis, traditional story structure is blithely ignored, and consistency is an object of scorn and ridicule.
That’s not to say there are no questions to be answered. For one, what happened to the cabin boy? That’s the first problem the boozy Clamp has to solve, initially accusing guitarist Keith Fredrickson (“What did you do to him, you nimble-fingered monster?”) and then exploring other avenues as his goldfish-like attention span wanes.
Jones and Paul Burn have done a terrific job on these bizarre-looking puppets; the green-skinned, red-gummed, white-haired Clamp is a truly grotesque creation, but the prize goes to Elford, designated only as a “swab” in the script — the lines and wrinkles on his carved face make him look like a tiny, wooden Clint Eastwood.
Donyale Werle’s busy, inventively maritime set gives the show some much-needed cohesion. Trap doors swing open, cabinets turn into bedrooms (it’s a small cast in every sense), and the ship itself folds into the floor to make room for other pirate-type locations.
Mostly, though, “Jollyship” sails by on Jones’ considerable charisma — the jokes that aren’t in the script are occasionally funnier than those that are, which is saying something. Problems pop up in a show as offbeat and endearingly slapdash as this one, but Jones even makes broken puppets funny (“Oh, fuck,” says Clamp, missing a hand. “I have to go to the hospital”).
Then there are the energized songs: “Funny at the Time” and “Eat Me Alive” in particular feature great guitar work by Fredrickson and Jones, and the finale, “Roving,” sends the show out with a bang.
In a show full of invective, the only insult with any bite to it comes when Clamp’s nemesis, Dread Marvin (also Azar), suggests the pirate captain has lost his drive. “I heard he hasn’t murdered anyone in years!” cackles the fiend. “I hear he couldn’t rape his way out of a paper bag!”
By the end, the audience has expended energy right along with the performers and it feels like a personal reward to see … well, not the good, but the slightly less evil sail off into the sunset on “the mother of us all,” as Clamp puts it. “A crazy-ass bitch called the sea.”