Performance Packed with Punch…and Judy: English 357 Provides Witty Entertainment

This past Thursday, English 357, Children’s Theater Workshop, presented a free performance of PUNCHjudyJUDYpunch at Brehmer Theater, fulfilling its promise to deliver punches and Judies, trampolines and dogs, music and lazzies, Commedia’dell Arte and all.

The students in the Children’s Theater Workshop course, taught by Assistant Professor of English in the University Theater April Sweeney, began researching Punch and Judy, a traditional English puppet show, at the beginning of the semester.

As Sweeney explained, the origins of Punch and Judy come from Commedia’dell Arte, an Italian style of comedy.

“Punch is a mirror of what’s going on in society. He is not a really good guy, but everyone can relate to him,” Sweeney said. Though Punch murders someone at the end of each act in the traditional Punch and Judy shows, “He’s still an everyman, a bit of counter-culture, railing against the institutions.”

Sweeney explained that for this reason, she challenged her class to translate the puppet show into a live action play and to see who Punch would be in 2008.

The class of ten students began doing improvisation and writing songs as they progressed in their research, eventually writing a script for the finished play. The ensemble piece features three Punches (junior Annastasia Ataku, senior Zachary McCollum and junior Hannah Sandler) and three Judies (sophomore Editza Velazquez, junior Allison Salewski and senior Lyndsay Werking) with every student playing multiple roles.

“The play came from who the students are as people. Ana’s Punch is different from Zach’s Punch is different from Hannah’s Punch,” said Sweeney.

The title’s interesting capitalization reflects Sweeney’s desire to focus on Judy as much as Punch, as well as create a play on the word “punch.”

“You see in our production who wears the pants, and I think her name is Judy,” Sweeney said.

The play itself, focusing on the relationship between Punch and Judy and eventually their quest for their lost baby girl, includes a recap of the history of the Punch and Judy genre as well as a composition, written by Sandler and sung by the entire cast, which explicitly asks the audience, “Does it scare you a bit that Mr. Punch is part of you?”

While there are certainly serious moments in the play, usually scenes satirizing today’s greedy society that had the adults in the audience laughing, there is also a lot of classic humor and wonderful nonsense. Sophomore Walfrey Lim awed the crowd with his dancing and gymnastic skills and teamed up with junior Elise Bronzo for a memorable high-school flashback. Senior Graham Wheeler kept the audience laughing in his role as a Spanish captain-his name too long to be printed here-with an absurd obsession with Judy’s knees, and senior Vanessa Persico was perfect as a bumbling undercover policeman. PUNCHjudyJUDYpunch even takes a “lunch break” – a five-minute scene where the actors and actresses pull out their lunch boxes and prepare for an elementary school vocabulary quiz.

“The play is very representational of the students, from their intellect and creativity and their hearts – who they are as people,” Sweeney said.

“There are songs because we have three talented singers,” Sweeney continued. “We have a capoeira fighting scene because Hannah is good at it. Editza is from New York City and her Judy is definitely from New York City.”

The class has received a grant from the Marcia Brady Tucker Foundation to tour Upstate New York, and they have already played in Clinton, Cherry Valley and the Utica Library, performing for crowds as large as 200. The class looks forward to three more shows booked in the week ahead, including one at The Palace Theatre on December 7 at 2 p.m.