'Children really do love murder," says Neil Gaiman, the prolific author behind the "Sandman" graphic novels and, recently, the films "Stardust" (adapted from his novel) and "Beowulf" (sharing writing credit with Roger Avary).
Gaiman's stories are dark, yet even he was surprised when he stumbled into a junk shop and picked up a worn puppeteer's autobiography with a synopsis of Mr. Punch, the hook-nosed star of countless kiddie shows. Out of irritation and boredom, Punch kills his child, his wife, his neighbor, his doctor, a servant, a blind man, a constable, his hangman and the devil himself, cackling all the while.
"I thought to myself, 'My God, I never knew that was the story,' " says Gaiman, adding, "What people remember is that Punch beats up Judy -- what nobody seems to remember is that he murders Judy."
Fractured recollection is a theme in Gaiman's graphic novel "The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch," illustrated by Dave McKean. As he wrote it, Gaiman was sleuthing out his own hidden family history and weaving his discoveries into the tale of a boy's traumatic summer at his grandfather's seaside arcade, and the adult he becomes attempting to distinguish fact from fantasy.
"It's not so much about the nature of memory as about the nature of family memory, collective memory, generational memory," says Gaiman. "Family secrets are always there and are impossible to properly unravel -- and then at the point where the secret doesn't matter, nobody remembers any longer."
Gaiman's story took root with SoCal's Rogue Artists Ensemble, a company devoted to puppetry and masks. The Rogues spent two years asking to adapt the book for the stage -- a "mad persistence," says Gaiman, that won them the distinction of being the first troupe to be given clearance.
"All the things we love to do are already in there," says Rogue's artistic director Sean T. Cawelti, who stages the show. But unpacking the layers of storytelling in puppet tradition -- now warped and bracketed through modern eyes -- is complicated for both company and audience.
"We play the violence as realistic and grim," says Cawelti of the puppet show within their show. "It's a comment on what's going on with the boy in his real world. This game is funny and cute, then serious things take place."
The show's original run in 2007 was well-received, a surreal jumble of hallucinatory puppets, moody masks and eerie music which Cawelti describes as a combination of funeral march with a bombastic calliope motif. Now with a fleet of new computers and a refocused plot line, the Rogues are reopening the Mr. Punch of their dreams and our repressed nightmares.
The story's transition to the stage makes Punch and Judy come full circle for Gaiman: "Theater makes the audience not only complicit in enjoying the murders -- they're imbuing the puppets with life," he says.
"It's cathartic," adds Cawelti. "There's something so divine about watching awful acts but at the end they stand back up and everything's OK."
'THE TRAGICAL COMEDY OR COMICAL TRAGEDY OF MR. PUNCH'
WHERE: Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Fri., 4 and 8 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun.; ends Aug. 31. (no perf Aug 8-10).
PRICE: $25 ($50 opening night gala)
INFO: (800) 838-3006; www.rogueartists.org