Gaiman & McKean's "Mr. Punch" on Stage

Performed every weekend between now and September 7 at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles is "The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch," a stage adaptation of the 1995 Vertigo graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. The production, staged by the Rogue Artists Ensemble, follows a number of live action projects based on the work of the acclaimed "The Sandman" author including last year's "Stardust," 2006's "Where's Neil When You Need Him?" album, and 2005's original screenplay "MirrorMask."

Based in part on his own childhood memories, "Mr. Punch" is Gaiman's most personal comics work and arguably McKean's greatest illustrative achievement (at least on paper), combining line art, photography, design and other disciplines to create the deeply idiosyncratic 96-page graphic novel about a man's fractured recollections of a boyhood summer spent at a seedy seaside arcade. Throughout the story, the narrator's memories align disturbingly with the classic puppet show tale of Punch and Judy, in which the outrageous Mr. Punch murders his wife and child, possibly among others. Adapting such a work for any medium, much less the stage â€" possibly the most difficult in terms of funding and resources and definitely the most limited in terms of space â€" would seem more than daunting to most, but director Sean T. Cawelti and the Rogues somehow manage to pull it off admirably.

McKean's stylized figures and meticulously murky atmospheres are realized on stage with a prodigious use of masks, exemplary scenic and lighting design, and projection screens displaying portions of the graphic novel as well as new artwork and animation. Indeed, the Rogue Artists Ensemble â€" who practice what they call Hyper-theater, a decidedly modern hybrid of technology, puppetry, masks, dance, and music -- is managed and mainly composed of artists and designers rather than traditional actors and directors, and it is clear at a glance just how enamored with McKean's groundbreaking multimedia work the group really is. In at least one instance, the Rogues' "Mr. Punch" actually exceeds the impact of the graphic novel, depicting as a kind of strangely exquisite yet brutal ballet a sequence in which a woman â€" possibly the arcade's "mermaid" performer, possibly Mr. Punch's forgotten girlfriend Polly -- suffers a horribly botched abortion, which appears as just one or two subtle panels in the book.

While McKean's creations are extremely well-served by the Rogues, the troupe's admitted lack of traditional narrative expertise leaves "Mr. Punch" more creative than coherent. Gaiman's story is inherently nebulous, playing with the unreliability of memory, but the writer deftly employs the language of comics to control the focus of his reader from page to page, telling readers what to understand and in other places inviting them to misunderstand. Nebulous, the stage production of "Mr. Punch" certainly is, with audiences often unsure of what or who to pay attention to, and, sadly, what it is they may have or may not have heard an actor say. The notable exception is Nina Silver as the Mermaid, who is marvelous in her role.

But the avant-garde is often its own reward, and this is true of "Mr. Punch's" incredible displays of puppetry. Ranging in size and style from a baby's face crudely drawn on a ball on the end of a stick to a massive, dragon-sized crocodile with glowing eyes, the Rogues breathe life into Gaiman and McKean's imaginative dream sequences and madcap interpretations of the classic Punch and Judy show. That the puppet performers are able to bring sophisticated 21st century audiences to the side of the violently anarchic Mr. Punch is a bizarre achievement, and one that warrants serious consideration on the way home after the performance.

Rogue Artist Ensemble's The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch is performed every Friday (8:00pm), Saturday (4:00pm and 8:00pm) and Sunday (4:00pm) between now and September 7 at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. The Bootleg also features a gallery of artwork inspired by the production, including paintings, sculpture and puppetry, and live music every Friday by peformers including Figureone, Josh Steinmetz, Jesca Hoop, and Marcela Carmona.

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