The School of Night’s production of Punch and Judy seems ready-made for the Fringe Festival. Taking the time-honored tradition of this centuries-old puppet show to violent new levels, the company is reenacting the classic with live actors who list “fighting” on their resumés as a primary skill.
I contacted School’s Chris Johnson and Jen Albert to find out more about this insane show — and how far they intend to take it.
Tell us a bit about The School of Night and how it came to be.
Chris Johnson: The School of Night is a company I founded in Chicago exactly one decade ago. At that time I was best known as the founding artistic director of Defiant Theatre, which over the 11 years it existed produced a lot of legendary Chicago shows. Despite Defiant’s decidedly contemporary bent, I managed to spearhead productions of Titus Andronicus, Macbeth and Hamlet, and I found myself gravitating over time toward older texts and more stylized performance traditions.
When Defiant disbanded in ’04 (by choice and for honorable reasons — original folk migrating to N.Y. and L.A., kids being born, houses bought, time consumed by more lucrative endeavors), I wanted to continue exploring the plays and performance techniques developed when live theater was the hottest thing going and all-pervasive natural realism had yet to suck the oxygen out of the room.
The School of Night’s inaugural production of Dulcitius, an insanely violent and funny religious tragicomedy by a tenth-century German nun, took place in ’06 at Chicago’s Abbie Hoffman Festival (a multiple-day, round-the-clock performance marathon that shares a definite spirit and vibe with the Fringe).
The following year Jen Albert and I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles where I spent a number of years stage-managing around town and knocking on doors looking for directing work. In 2012, I helmed Henry VI, Part I for The Production Company, during which process Jen and I discovered how effectively we work together as director and fight choreographer. H6I is roughly one-third battles, and one of the most daunting fight shows in all dramatic literature.
Collaborating on it was a tremendous experience for us, both as artists and as a couple. We found that our skills and proclivities were complementary in the extreme, resulting in some very choice stage violence and mayhem. Last year I had the opportunity to direct Entropy for Theatre of NOTE which, in addition to being a great experience with a swell bunch of folks, seemed to go over really well with audiences. As things seemed to be happening for us theater-wise, the time felt right to get back to producing some of our own stuff.
What was the inspiration for this particular production?
CJ: The inspirations are a many-splendored hodgepodge. High up the pecking order would be the script compiled by John Payne Collier in 1828, based on the performances of an Italian street Punch-man named Picchini. Though not definitive, that text is the closest thing to a classic Punch and Judy template we have, and it’s the principal source I based my adaptation on. The stylistic inspirations are legion: Greco-Roman masked drama, gladiatorial combat, English mystery plays, commedia dell’arte, grand-guignol, slasher movies…all kinds of disparate stuff that share DNA in the primal ooze of western pop-culture.
This production is done with actors rather than puppets. How is that carried out?
CJ: The classic Punch and Judy storyline (wherein Punch kills his family before being captured by the authorities and eluding execution by way of trickery) actually originated in a mid-16th-century commedia dell’arte scenario. Commedia, a form of semi-improvised masked drama developed in Renaissance Italy, took its characters and some conventions from the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence which were themselves distillations of the more ancient Atellan farces, raucous masked comedies that flourished in the countryside outside Capua centuries before Christ.
Most scholars of the subject agree that Punch the English puppet is the direct descendant of the popular commedia character (or mask) Pulchinella, who was himself taken from the Atellana’s violent and beak-nosed Maccus. Epically long story short, Punch’s homicidal rampage has as much of a tradition of being enacted by live, masked actors as it does by puppeteers. Our live staging isn’t innovation so much as a return to form.
As for the specific performance style we employ in an effort to realize that, I would cite the neo-commedia work done by New Crime Theatre in Chicago during the early 1990s as a prime influence for both myself and Jimmy Slonina (who is playing Punch). Defiant’s Ubu Raw, directed by Joe Foust, in which both Jimmy and I appeared, is another seminal shared influence. More recent productions here in L.A. by companies like Four Clowns and The Actors Gang have definitely informed my approach to commedia-style performance. And I would be remiss in failing to cite Looney Tunes cartoons as a key influence, constituting as they do (in my opinion anyway) the best source available to any currently living theater practitioner wishing to learn about vaudevillian technique.
Given that there are nods to many performance styles in the piece (including the splatter film), how closely does the plot hew to the Punch and Judy tradition? Are there modern references?
CJ: Our production hews pretty closely to the traditional Punch and Judy in terms of characters and basic action. That’s part of the wonder and horror of it, actually – that something this deranged and antisocial took hold and has endured as a popular entertainment for so long. But the show also contains a great many modern flourishes across the board. Introducing contemporary elements and references seems intuitively right, given what a grab-bag of eras and styles Punch and Judy embodies already.
What sort of reaction do you hope to get from the audience? What’s the ratio between hilarious and appalling?
CJ: Primarily I’m hoping for laughter and enjoyment, those being the truest reflections of whatever “authorial intent” Punch and Judy can be said to have. If audiences are also prompted to reflect on the implications of an enduring classic entertainment being this violent and nihilistic, that’s some nice gravy. If they’re further moved to ruminate on the deep historicity of the many cultural and aesthetic threads running through the piece, I would consider that we had achieved something legitimately arty.
As for the ratio between hilarious and appalling, I’d ideally like audiences to find everything hilariously appalling in roughly equal degree. But audience reactions to this kind of material vary wildly and notoriously. We’re just going to have to play it for whoever shows up and see what they do. If anybody doesn’t enjoy it, I hope they’re at least moved to riot.
Who are some of the actors in the production and what do they bring to their roles?
Jen Albert: We have some awesome people involved, all actors we know and have worked with before. I can’t even believe we were able to get Cirque du Soleil clown Jimmy Slonina as our Punch. It was a fluke and a crazy blessing that he had the time and willingness to do this show. It’s great watching him and Chris in rehearsal, because there is shorthand between them. Not a whole of explaining, just “Remember that thing we did in…?” “Ah, yes, okay — got it.”
I went to Columbia College in Chicago with Sondra Mayer, our Judy, and she is one of the best fighters I know. Having her aboard is a godsend. Any time Chris and I cast a show, the first thing we ask is “Can the actor fight?” It’s pretty essential; I tend to want to play with choreography and push styles or try things that are out of the box. And it is so helpful to have an actor who can understand what you need, add to it and make the role their own.
Then, of course, Eric Rollins – seriously one of the best fighters anyone will meet. Eric played Talbot for our production of Henry VI, Part I and was the first person we called to be in this show. He brings a nice realism to the violence, because he studied the same martial art I did – Kenpo. He is a second-degree black belt or something even beyond that. He also taught stage combat, and he is truly one of the loveliest human beings you will ever meet. Because he actually understands real fighting, I can say I’m looking for a “parting wings” thing here or a “five swords” energy there (from Kenpo) and we play and improvise and and create something unique and badass.
Kjai Block came from Entropy, and we knew he would be hilarious and could propel his body across the stage like no else. He’s an awesome all-around person. Tiffany Cole and Synden Healy both came from our Henry VI, both wonderful actors and great fighters and people. Sometimes you just have to say: “We like them – they’re great, they’re game and we want them in this show.”
What makes this production a good fit for Fringe?
CJ: It’s relatively short, very high-energy and focused principally on entertaining. When you’ve got audiences seeing multiple shows during marathon days I think it’s important there be stuff like that in the mix, the live-performance equivalent of a double-espresso tossed back between pieces that might require a longer sit or more serious focus.
I also think it’s a good Fringe fit insofar as it’s exceedingly and specifically theatrical, with deep historical roots in the art form. Punch and Judy has been trickling down to us in bits and pieces since the days of classical antiquity. It’s an ancestral popular entertainment and, as such, carries significance that few works of art can legitimately lay claim to.
Is this the company’s first Fringe show? Have any of the members been involved in other productions?
JA: This is my second Fringe. I played Kate in 50 Shades of Shrew last year and had one of the best theater experiences I have ever had in L.A. There really is nothing like Fringe. I remember coming home from a Town Hall and walking in the door with such excitement and saying to Chris, “We need to do Punch and Judy for Fringe.” Not since Chicago had I felt such a gracious and loving theater community.
Do you have any recommendations of other shows to see at the Fringe?
JA: I am excited about a few shows: Titus Andronicus, Jr., My Alamo War, Broadway Noir, Night Witches, All the Best Killers are Librarians and Must be Comfortable With.
The School of Night’s Punch and Judy plays the Hollywood Fringe from June 4-5 (previews) and June 9-21 at the Complex Theatres, 6468 Santa Monica Boulevard. More information, showtimes and tickets can be obtained on the Fringe site.