Punch and Judy
Reviewed by Bill Raden
OMR Theatre at The Complex
Through June 21
There are many reasons to put director-adaptor Christopher Johnson’s hilarious and decidedly adults-only reworking of Punch and Judy at the top of this year’s list of must-see Fringe shows. The first is that there isn’t a marionette — and barely a puppet — in sight. Instead, Johnson has replaced the traditional miniatures with live actors, spiked an original unsanitized 19th century script with inspired and politically barbed American anachronisms, scaled up the raucous ultra-violence of the lascivious and homicidally inclined Punch into full-blown, blood-spatter Grand Guignol, and staged the results as highly polished and pitch-perfect commedia dell’arte.
The best reason to see this Punch, however, is that Johnson has assembled one of the ablest and most expertly timed physical comedy ensembles in recent memory. The antic Jimmy Slonina (a Cirque du Soleil clown) headlines as the titular miscreant, whose hair-trigger penchant for child and spousal abuse sends him into a spiraling descent of ever more depraved acts of slapstick combat (fight choreographer by Jen Albert). Throughout it all, fight choreographer Jen Albert wittily parodies familiar Hollywood movie violence, ranging from The Matrix to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Sondra Mayer is shriekingly funny as his shrewish wife Judy; Tiffany Cole is suitably outrageous as the haplessly victimized Scaramouch; the fine Kjai Block fills in as both Scaramouch’s bad-tempered dog Toby and the hangman Jack Ketch; and Synden Healy is ludicrously witless as Pretty Polly and Punch’s speech-impaired defense attorney. Andrew Lehman’s eye-popping design of the show’s sole puppet, along with Ryan Beveridge’s live sound effects and accompaniment, provide superlative support.
The most jaw-dropping — and sidesplitting — appearance in the evening, however, is that of Eric Rollins (who also plays the Devil) as the traditional but now largely censored character of Jim Crow. An explicitly racist caricature of a bygone era, Rollins performs it replete with an Uncle Tom accent and a distinctly contemporary sense of dignity. Any unsavory political incorrectness, however, is redeemed as Johnson turns the implicit bigotry back on the culture that produced it, in politically edged lampoons of cop-on-black violence.
OMR Theatre at The Complex, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd; through June 21. (323) 455-4585, hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3722. Running time: one hour.