A raised voice cackles inside the little red and white striped hut with an ornate stage.
A wooden figure with a red sugarloaf hat and giant hook-end nose is attempting to babysit his ward while his wife steps out. It doesn’t go well, and chaos ensues when she returns and the slapstick starts flying, hitting all manner of people and things.
With its roots in 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, the puppet spectacle known as Punch and Judy has resonated along the white sand beaches of Britain’s southwest coast to the vaudeville theatres of North America.
In 1977, a travelling caravan theatre, with its actors and sets pulled along by horses, staged it around B.C.
That tradition is about to be turned on its little wooden head when Caravan Farm Theatre presents this summer’s production, The Tragical Comedy of Punch and Judy. Think giant puppets, actors and horses, or your typical day at the famed outdoor theatre tucked away in the wilds of Spallumcheen.
“We take on an archetype of Punch and Judy,” said Caravan’s artistic director Courtenay Dobbie, who is directing the script written by Victoria’s Jacob Richmond.
“This show is about the journey of Mr. Punch who goes from being a trickster character to being a kind and compassionate human being.”
In other words, Mr. Punch, the misbehaved insolent trickster who likes manipulating people for entertainment and is always in trouble, gets his comeuppance.
Richmond’s interpretation starts with the traditional puppet show (with puppets designed by Caravan stalwart Catherine Hahn), where Mr. Punch and Judy and their cast of characters put on their famous puppet show, as they have for 350 years.
The play then morphs into using live actors as Mr. Punch loses Judy to the dashing actor Oedipus Rex. To win her back, he is told by the Devil, of all people, that he must go on a journey that leads him to the depths of humanity.
It all ends with a play within a play in the vein of Oedipus Rex, without all that incestuous, murderous stuff.
“It’s an evolutionary tale on how to become a beautiful person,” said Dobbie, adding the story is told as a Greek tragedy and is about someone who takes pleasure in other people’s misery and is forced to see the error of his ways.
“Jacob came up with the story, which asks what is beauty. It’s more on the inside than the outside. There is so much now on TV and in movies where they take ugly situations and make money off of people suffering. It asks, ‘how does that happen, and where’s the line?’”
The underbelly of the story asks those deep questions, but on the surface it is also funny and incorporates all that Caravan magic, starting with those giant puppets, which are being brought to the farm from Hahn’s studio in Victoria.
They include the skeletal figure of Charon, the ferryman, who leads Mr. Punch to the Land of the Dead after he experiences emotion for the first time.
“(Charon) stands 20-feet tall,” said Dobbie, adding the character of Pythia, who serves as the Oracle and leads Punch to his fate, is as tall, while a serpent slithers to 40-feet long. “The whole show is not just puppets. It has live actors, singers, with a cool puppet element. There’s a part where Mr. Punch loses part of his costume and changes into a human.”
Mr. Punch’s human form is played by Paul Braunstein while other characters (many of whom will wear masks, also designed by Hahn, and costumes by Carmen Alatorre) include the Devil, played by Colin Doyle (returning after his hilarious turn in last year’s Caravan production of Head Over Heels); Sarah May Redmond as Judy; Paul Fateux as Oedipus; Lucy Hill as Pretty Polly; Daniel Maslany as Joey the Clown; Treena Stubel as Jack Ketch, The Hangman; Christopher Hunt (also returning from Head Over Heels, and this time will be keeping his trousers on) as Mr. Scaramouche, and Tom Jones as Mr. Pugs, The Shaved Monkey.
As in all Caravan productions, the play also features live musicians, in this case performing original tunes written by music director Hank Pine and played by drummer Andrew Taylor, Mishelle Cutler on accordion, and Alfons Fear on trumpet.
Set designer Marshall McMahen (who designed Caravan’s last two summer productions) and his team have come up with a vintage circus-like set that takes audiences from the farm’s riding ring to its timber-frame barn.
“The journey is a metaphorical one, but we also get the audience to physically go on that journey with Mr. Punch,” said Dobbie.
Caravan’s beloved Clydesdales are also part of the show, hauling the set pieces, and the stage, for each scene. (The farm’s newest equine team, Spike and Frenchie, will be taking part in their first summer production at the farm.)
“It is a huge spectacle,” said Dobbie. “We have a very talented cast coming from all parts of Canada and visually it’s quite splendid with a vaudeville, cabaret-like stage. The music also brings it all together. And for diehards, they will get the traditional Punch and Judy show.”
The Tragical Comedy of Punch and Judy runs at Caravan Farm Theatre (4886 Salmon River Rd. northwest of Armstrong) from July 22 to Aug. 24. Shows take place nightly, except Mondays, rain or shine, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the Ticket Seller box office in the Vernon Performing Arts Centre, or order by calling 250-549-7469 (toll free at 1-866-311-1011) or online at www.ticketseller.ca.