Rogue Artists Ensemble’s ‘The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch’ at Bootleg Theater

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Special to The Times

An adult narrator recalls a long-ago visit to his grandfather’s seaside arcade -- for him, not a Proustian amble down memory lane but a frantic dash through a no man’s land where monsters lurk.

Rogue Artists Ensemble’s “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch,” which received its world premiere in 2007, is back. Now at the Bootleg Theater, the rewritten and recalibrated production is a triumphant fusion of text and technology, as potent a distillation of childhood terror as can be found outside the Brothers Grimm.

Set in postwar England, the action centers around a Boy (Sean Eaton, doubling in the role with Connor Merkovich) who has been shipped off to his grandparents while his parents await the birth of another child. Abandoned and displaced, the child befriends a Mermaid (Nina Silver) -- actually a performer in a seaside exhibit who is having an affair with the Boy’s Grandpa (Dana Kelly Jr.).


Marginalized by the new medium of television, the once-popular arcade is failing fast. Still, some time-honored traditions linger, such as a Punch and Judy show run by a mysterious Professor ( Tom Ashworth). The malevolently clownish Mr. Punch, who beats his wife, kills his baby and wrestles with the Devil himself, becomes an object of fascination and dread for the Boy, as real as any human in his bizarre and unsettling new surroundings.

Based on a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman illustrated by Dave McKean, this adaptation by director Sean T. Cawelti, Miles Taber and the company keeps the narrative taut and comprehensible within its surreal context. Among the proficient cast, which includes Kerr Seth Lordygan, Don Allen, Miles Taber, Cari Turley and Matthew Ritchey, Silver shines as the doomed Mermaid who finds the path of love as agonizing as does any Hans Christian Andersen heroine.

The amazing design elements set a new standard for sub-99-seat theater. Particularly noteworthy are Mel Domingo’s lighting, John Nobori’s sound and Joel Daavid’s scenic design, which meshes so perfectly with Brian White’s extraordinary video design that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where the physical set leaves off and the taped images begin. Original music by Ben Phelps helps set the eerie tone, and Joyce Hutter’s amazing puppets, which range from small-scale to life-size, are works of art that could stand on their own in a gallery.

Presiding over the whole, Cawelti brings military precision to this near-faultless production, which, although definitely not for children, might well awaken any adult’s traumatized inner child.