Times Staff Writer

IF THERE was an award for most imagery per square inch in a play, this year’s statuette would almost certainly go to the Rogue Artists Ensemble’s production of “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch.”

A densely packed epic about one boy’s adventures during a seaside stay with his grandfather, this memory play overflows with nightmarish grotesquerie designed equally to repulse and fascinate.

Adapted from the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, the production combines puppetry, masks, video, dance, shadow play and a giant crocodile head to reproduce the spirit of the book’s illustrations. Straddling the line between high-tech and low-tech, the show, at the Bootleg Theater through Aug. 31, is a genre-busting assemblage of competing theatrical styles.

“Creating an illusion in a small space is a lot like putting on a magic show,” said Megan Owings, dramaturge at Rogue Artists. “That’s the blessing and the curse of working in such a small theater.”


First produced last year, the revised “Mr. Punch” contains video projections of McKean’s original illustrations. Drawings flicker in the background as the cast performs a scene on stage -- a kind of visual homage to the illustrator, who granted the company permission to use his artwork.

To create the effects, video artist Brian White scanned the illustrations and used PhotoShop to erase speech balloons. He then imported the images into After Effects, a program that allowed him to create an animated loop for certain scenes. In all, the play contains nearly 70 original video sequences, ranging from a few seconds to several minutes. “The idea was to integrate the video into the set so it was a fundamental part of the scenery, not just ancillary to it,” White says.

With so much happening on stage, it’s sometimes hard to know where to look in “Mr. Punch.” Sean Cawelti, the show’s director and the company’s artistic director, likens the play to getting lost in a Rubik’s Cube. “The play melds together physical spaces as well as different time periods,” he says.

Much of the action takes place in shadows and semi-darkness, a decision partly inspired by a line from the novel: “The pre-dawn world lacked colour: there was grey in abundance and a strange strained blue.”

Lighting designer Mel Domingo says the director kept pushing her to make scenes darker. “We want people to see what’s on stage, but we also want to keep the grittiness,” she says. “It’s about sacrificing a little of the visuals for the atmosphere.”

Inhabiting this crepuscular universe are a young boy (a role shared by Sean Eaton and Connor Merkovich), his arcade-owning grandfather (Dana Kelly Jr.) and a voluble professor (Tom Ashworth) who runs an ultra-violent Punch and Judy puppet show.

Most of the actors wear T-shaped masks covering the top portion of their faces, giving them a half-human, half-marionette appearance. “They’re supposed to look like they just stepped out of the novel,” says mask designer Patrick Rubio.

For the climactic scene, Rubio created an elaborate 4-foot-tall tribal mask made of 20 layers of coffee filters painted bright colors. Total cost: $25.

Actors double as handlers for the 24 puppets seen on stage. The puppets vary in style from bunraku-style characters to traditional three-finger puppets.

To create the Punch and Judy show, designer Joyce Hutter sculpted the puppet bodies out of clay and then made molds of silicone. She injected each mold with polyurethane expanding foam, the kind often used in the armrests of cars.

For the shadow puppet scenes, creators used Indonesian-style flat-board marionettes. In the original production of “Mr. Punch,” the shadow puppetry was performed live, but the actors quickly found that it was too physically demanding. For this production, they pre-taped the scenes that are projected onto a screen.

But it’s still not easy. “This is the least comfortable show ever,” exclaimed one actress. Each night, the 10 cast members must navigate the multilevel set (designed by Joel Daavid) while coordinating dialogue with the more than 1,000 sound cues that are mixed live.

“The hardest thing was making it all work together on a small budget,” said Tyler Stamets, the company’s technical director.

“We wanted to be faithful to McKean’s imagery, but we also wanted to create our own vision.”