Slap Happy 

Punch and Judy duke it out at Cleveland Public Theatre.

All intimate human relationships reside in the shadowy area between two terrors: the fear of being alone and the fear of having the same person denting your favorite easy chair every night. This probably explains why most couples are always having disputes about one thing and another, as they try to wriggle themselves into temporarily tenable positions. Either that or they just go numb, a condition observed most readily in the dour anniversary photos of couples married 50 years or more, some of whom look as if they've been embalmed for that precise length of time.

Small wonder, then, that the old Punch-and-Judy puppet shows were so popular on English street corners. As those wooden-headed lovebirds smacked each other ass-over-teakettle with various sticks and cudgels, audiences lapped it up, seeing in miniature but exaggerated form the conflict they sensed -- if they didn't actually experience it -- in their daily home life.

Now the old sparring partners are being given an entirely new spin in The Confessions of Punch and Judy at Cleveland Public Theatre. This "devised" production has been created by director Raymond Bobgan and his two actors, blending straightforward dialogue scenes with music, mime, dance, snatches of fairy tales, old jokes, mythology, light bondage, cabbage-chopping, and random hammering to create a surreal take on the dynamics of a relationship. Developed in partnership with the North American Cultural Laboratory (NaCL) Theatre of New York and Number 11 Theatre of Toronto, Confessions is not as anarchically violent as the traditional puppet shows from which it springs, but it's consistently surprising and often quite funny, and features two delightful performers.

On a stage accented in red (for her) and blue (for him), their evening's argument begins over a banal item in the news and escalates through various stages of dress and undress, wild and nonlinear, as they explore the nooks and crannies of their contentious shared existence. Then, near the end, they merge as one under a large gold sheet and create new and startling forms together. Borrowing from many styles and periods, this world premiere offers a primal sort of theatricality without taking itself seriously -- which can be the death knell of any avant-garde work.

Tannis Kowalchuk as Judy looks like a young Jessica Lange and gives as good as she gets, alternately teasing, tempting, and thumping her husband about the head and shoulders, as she tries to find her power leverage in the relationship. Punch is played by the equally engaging Ker Wells, who is as adept with the spoken word as he is at throwing phantom uppercuts and flinging himself across the stage. Both actors handle the variegated bits seamlessly (they've been working on this show, off and on, since 2001), and they perfectly capture the repeated patterns of noncommunication that are the hallmark of so many long-term marriages.

And now and then, there are nuggets of wisdom amid all the slapstick. When Judy meets the god Dionysus, she learns the gift of love without possession. Think of the arguments that could be avoided if that idea took hold.

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