Punch Drunk

Galumph turns politicians into puppets; Minnesota Musical Theater turns brain surgery into a song-and-dance routine

Pity the Lord of Misrule. Poor Punch. Once the most recognizable and representative of hand puppets, this red-faced fellow has fallen on hard times. His grotesque, crescent-shaped head, jester's costume, hunched back, and noisemaking stick have all lost their powers. Perhaps it is the stick--the stick must be at fault. After all, in traditional Punch and Judy shows, our popular hero wielded the stick with wild abandon, beating his wife to death with it as the commencement of an anarchic, antiauthoritarian crime spree that made corpses out of Punch's infant son, various police officers and public officials, and eventually the devil himself. Such a cavalier attitude toward mayhem (particularly with its overtones of domestic abuse, infanticide, criminality, and heresy) has gone out of fashion in theater for the very young.

And while Punch and Judy still appear now and again at British coastal resorts, their appearance is so rare in the United States that they no longer even bring about nervous tittering from startled parents. So we can thank the Galumph Performance Troupe--and puppeteer Chris Griffith in particular--not simply for reviving this seditious character, but also for reminding us that Punch's topsy-turvy universe is a ticklish one. Galumph's Mr. Punch Runs for President manages to make use of every element of the traditional Punch show, from shouted audience responses to a mock-serious, professorial introduction. But Griffith, who is the sole puppeteer behind the dozens of stock characters that populate Punch's world, does a rather ingenious job of updating the show--itself a longstanding Punch tradition, as the character has always been used to mock current events.

Try to put your hand inside me and I'll beat you with a stick: Punch, the politician
Try to put your hand inside me and I'll beat you with a stick: Punch, the politician

We begin with Punch and his speechless friend Joey watching television news, learning that unhappy voters have taken to the streets across America, all bearing puppets and engaging in impromptu protests. Our heroes greet this news with the expected (and in this instance welcome) violence: They smash their television set, and then Punch declares his candidacy. And so on the stage arrives the usual gang of characters: A devouring crocodile, a shrewish wife with a wailing infant, a bumbling policeman, and an executioner, all recast in light of the current elections. The executioner, for example, is none other than Texas Governor and (by the time this article hits newsstands) President George W. Bush, referred to in the production simply as "The 23rd Letter of the Alphabet," who drags his own electric chair with him to ad-libbed debates. Thanks to Punch's deceit, another show staple, the governor expires in his own murderous device. This delighted the small adult audience gathered in the minuscule Galumph Studio in south Minneapolis, who hollered with the sort of enthusiasm usually produced by bellowing crowds of children gathered for Punch and Judy shows--a sight now very seldom seen, alas.

This puppet show is one of two new pieces debuted by the Galumph Performance Troupe. The second, which alternates evenings with "Mr. Punch," also features Chris Griffith, this time sans puppets. Griffith plays two characters in a deeply odd production titled Choompa Woompa 101: a confounded farmer and a ski-mask-wearing terrorist. In neither incarnation does he speak English. Instead, he speaks a fabricated language called Choompa Woompa, invented by the show's creator, Anne Sawyer, who is on hand as an instructor.

The audience, you see, is expected to learn Choompa Woompa. The whole production is structured something like a foreign-language lesson, with the audience receiving nametags giving them new appellations in their new language (mine was "Gersht") before learning such essential phrases as "hello" ("panky") and "pig" ("poompf"). The latter might make a surprising first word, but audiences are not simply students in this program; they are also delegates from Minnesota sent down to a small South American island named Wooker to help resolve an environmental dilemma. The problem involves pigs, as well as small insects and corporate-backed terrorist organizations, and audiences must learn enough Choompa Woompa to be able to express their solutions in their new language.

Some potential viewers might be scared away by this production, remembering their own bad experiences in junior high when they struggled with French, but the language of Choompa Woompa requires no messy conjugations. Furthermore, the instructors constantly press their students to eat little cookies and drink tea, and they seem delighted by each incremental advance their students make in mastering this invented tongue. My resolution to their dilemma involved training the small insects to tightrope walk and fire themselves out of cannons, and the performers seemed delirious with this suggestion, ridiculous as it was. And the lessons stuck: One of the other students, seeing me a day later, waved to me and hollered out a cheery cry of "Panky!"

 

Perhaps it was all the new Choompa Woompa I had learned crowding out my memory, but ten minutes after seeing A New Brain at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, I could not remember any of the songs in the production, even though it consists of nothing but songs. No doubt this was for the better, as Falsettos creators James Lapine and William Finn's musical about a young songwriter who suffers a potentially fatal aneurysm (based on Finn's own near-death experience) consists of exactly the sort of music that I always fear will give me an aneurysm. Whatever style of song the production apes--and this piano and drum kit-backed song cycle mimics everything from doo-wop to Brecht/Weill cabaret music--the results always sound disorderly and unmelodic. It's exactly the feeling I get from high school jazz choirs, and A New Brain uses many of the same sorts of gimmicky arrangements, including dividing up the melody of a song between the singers in complex, syncopated parts, which has always seemed to me a cheap way of creating musical excitement.

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