Rogue Artists Ensemble’s world premiere adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s graphic novel “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch” is an otherworldly phantasmagoria. Under Sean T. Cawelti’s protean direction, the show is a feast for the senses, but an ineffective lead actor and some vague character motivation keep the show from attaining its full emotional impact.
As the audience awaits the start of the show, the stage is draped with makeshift curtains as if for a decayed theater, elaborate ornamentation looming behind the shrouds. Two screens flank the space, with video projections of a sunny seaside pier — as seen from beyond the end of the pier, underwater. On the floor a circle of handwritten text is inscribed, a vortex which combines the shadowy magic and menace of the overall scene into a premonitory whole: an invocation to art.
As an adult, the Man (Miles Taber) looks back on a troubling time in his childhood, when his parents, expecting a new baby, farmed him out to stay with his Grandpa (Dana Kelly Jr.) for a while. Grandpa runs a failing seaside fun fair, and the Boy (Dalton O’Dell) spends most of his time there, meeting his hunchbacked Uncle (Lucas Salazar) and loitering with the beautiful Mermaid (Nina Silver). Mainly, however, he is drawn to the Punch and Judy puppet tent run by the Professor (Tom Ashworth). There old tales of violence and cruelty are turned into crude comedy, the solution to squalling babies and expendable wives is murder, and the Devil is never far away.
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The role of the Boy is a difficult one, and O’Dell unfortunately doesn’t seem able to deliver on all the layers of subtlety required, although he makes a game attempt. Ashworth is masterful as the Professor, emanating dark charisma, and his voicing of the cooing, psychotic Punch is perfect. Silver brings a warm sense of compassion and melancholy to the proceedings, and Salazar is vividly memorable as the gruff Uncle, his cane almost a physical extension of his will. Kelly doesn’t have a great deal of stage time, but he makes the most of it in a disturbing monologue.
The adaptation by Cawelti, Taber and Rae Walker mostly works, and as an attempt to re-create the style of the original graphic novel, it succeeds brilliantly. The only weakness lies in its murky characterization. Whereas the graphic novel could get by with its dazzling admixture of pictures and prose, onstage the audience wants to know clearly why the characters are doing what they’re doing. The adaptation falls down here, which leaves the great trauma of the main character’s life more mysterious than it should be.
Cawelti’s direction triumphantly mixes traditional puppeteering, shadow puppets, masks, video projections and more into a thriving whole. Joel Daavid’s spooky set combines nuance and utility. John Nobori’s waves of sound and Melissa Domingo’s washes of light make a thrilling combination. Joyce Hutter’s puppets are magnificently eerie creations, and Patrick Rubio’s masks are quite effective, particularly a huge and fierce roaring Grandpa face. Finally, Patrick Heyn and Brian White’s video design is outstanding, adding another aesthetic level of achievement and tying the entire show together.