I am often struck by how a performance may represent so much creativity, imagination, and sweat equity, yet the most memorable moments can result from the simplest, most seemingly effortless actions. At one point quite late in the running time of No Punchbacks, Greg Maupin exchanges one prop for another by reaching backstage with so fluid and unfussy a motion that, viola!, a cane became a mop before our very eyes. It may seem like a trivial detail, but for me, it is as pure an expression of why Le Petomane earns my admiration as I can conjure.
Le Petomane here recognizes its most fundamental underpinnings by bringing to life the iconic Punch and Judy characters in life-size form. On some level, this is an exploration of the group’s identity, since these characters can be traced back to Italian commedia dell’arte, which has always informed what these players are up to. But mostly it is a foundation for the patented blend of low and highbrow humor that is a Le Petomane trademark.
The early bits of business establish this Punch-and-Judy relationship as a commentary on the idea of marriage, a heady premise in a time when the concept is being debated so passionately, although there is no overt connection made to modern day affairs. Still, when Judy comes out and screams her husband’s name with a gale force that bends his form sideways like a CNN reporter caught in a hurricane, or when he is beaten about the stage by her AND their infant child, it is an archetypal depiction of domestic discord that is still resonant today. The fact that the show arrives around Valentine’s Day clinches the theme. In spite of the improvisational creative process that is their custom, the network of associations that make up the text never seem random. With Le Petomane, the brain is always connected to the funny bone.
As funny as the show is, the underlying cruelty is also unmistakable, and the action establishes a strong connection between slapstick and human suffering. Inspired, knockabout sequences in which the Baby is tossed around and narrowly avoids a hard landing are adroitly managed, and a fateful encounter with Death reinforces the foothold in dark territory.
The narrative follows Punch on an existential Long Dark Night of the Soul – leaving Judy and Baby behind for a long stretch – wherein he plays matchmaker to a constable and a mop (really) and engages in epic conflict with a small dog over a savory pink sausage. That the dog delivers an impassioned lecture about justice and the sausage warbles a hilarious pun-heavy song are moments incongruous and absurd enough to feel perfectly at home, perhaps only in a Le Petomane show.
The costumes and settings are beautifully realized at just the right level, never overreaching and providing ample opportunity for creative and ingenious stagecraft. Particularly good results spring from fields of chalkboard paint applied to the walls, so that various words, objects, and landscapes can be drawn when required. The three cast members – Gregory Maupin, Abigail Bailey Maupin and Kristie Rolape – perform with supple confidence and do things that seem deceptively simple but astonishingly clever: Mr. Maupin “playing” a chalk drawing of a piano, Ms. Maupin’s constable in sweet-natured repose with her paramour (the aforementioned mop), and Ms. Rolape’s Yosemite-Sam-like voice as that pink sausage. There was also a consistently clever handling of simple props, especially some brilliant business between Punch and Baby that involved some unbelievably resilient spaghetti, and highly expressive masks including a red-faced visage for the Baby that was positively demonic in its suggestiveness – because the Baby is by no means the most relatable character on this stage.
Oh yes, they also use a real slapstick: a device carried by Punch with some regularity throughout history. So, really, what more could you ask? See for yourself and take your own paramour along. It is Valentine’s Day.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner