Talk about a long-term relationship. The puppet personas of Punch and Judy have been battling it out ever since King Charles II ruled England in the 17th century. The two characters unleash the frustrations of domestic life upon each other through vituperative double entendres and physical violence.
In The Confessions of Punch and Judy at the HERE Arts Center, performers Tannis Kowalchuk and Ker Wells lend their human forms to explore, among other things, this centuries-old relationship and shed light on why the art form has remained such an ingrained part of our social consciousness. Kowalchuk and Wells, along with director Raymond Bobgan, certainly are not the first ones to develop Punch and Judy into living, breathing people. Any domestic situation comedy is a direct descendant of these puppet shows, from Lucy and Ricky Ricardo to Peggy and Al Bundy, along with the ultimate example, of course: Alice and Ralph Kramden.
What the three creators of The Confessions of Punch and Judy have produced, however, is a much more profound, lyrical, and humane portrayal of the ups and downs of a committed relationship. Confessions begins much like any romantic argument: in the course of a typical, humdrum conversation, a simple semantic contest opens the gates of a relationship hell in which every past misdeed and white lie is resurrected by a satanic personality whom you've been cursed to live with for years now. Interspersed with the argument are eloquent physical manifestations of emotional turmoil, Biblical and Greek epic storytelling, and Punch and Judy-esque antics.
Kowalchuk and Wells navigate this demanding pastiche with grace and passion. Not only engaging and charismatic performers, they prove themselves to be physical and emotional athletes as well, changing mood and power at the drop of a hat. Most notably, though, the two performers are fantastic in both filling and thwarting conventional gender roles. Punch and Judy wear all blue and red, respectively, with complementing set decorations. Punch pounds the ground with his hammers while Judy docilely dices an onion (without crying, at that). However, once the argument escalates, these quotidian actions are re-enacted, with the underpinning darkness brought out in the open: Punch recklessly brandishes a power saw while Judy violently hacks at a head of lettuce, no doubt envisioning another head in its place.
Through their journey of storytelling, role-playing, and singing and dancing, they rediscover the ways we misunderstand and misuse the emotion we call "love," leading to reconciliation and perhaps the most glorious interpretation of makeup sex ever staged.
Finding love is difficult enough; keeping it alive once it's been found can be nearly impossible. The Confessions of Punch and Judy is, at once, a damning and vindicating account of this struggle to make love last, best shown in a quiet and rare reprieve from the argument:
Punch asks, "Are we monsters?"
"No, Punch. Well, yes. I am a monster."
"Me too. I'm a monster too."