Punch and Judy Get Divorced is a new musical describing, as the title suggests, the divorce of the famous puppet characters. Through witty songs and well-chore-ographed dance, it is able to successfully address the problems of marriage in the 1990s, while providing plenty of comic relief. Punch and Judy become the archetypal married couple; as Judy 1 (Lola Pashalinski) says: "We've been together for 200 some odd years--some very odd."
The play begins not with Punch and Judy quibbling, as one might expect, but rather with the Devil (Charles Levin). He runs down an aisle through the audience to the stage, introduces himself as a troublemaker and marriage-breaker, and announces the topic of the show: marriage and relationships. The scene then shifts to Punch 2 (Benjamin Evett) and Judy 2 (Gail Grate), a modern-day couple with a young daughter, "Judy baby" (Alice Playten). (Part of the show's strangeness comes from the fact that most of the characters' names are some variation on Punch and Judy). They argue a bit and then go out to see a play, which happens to be a twisted Punch and Judy show. Inspired by the play, which they themselves get involved in, the couple decide to get divorced; as they say, they had a "miscarriage of marriage."
The second half of the play takes place 36 years later and deals with the ramifications of the divorce. This strongly female centered section of the musical addresses the problems of Judys who are divorced, widowed, never married or alone by choice.
That such a deliberately weird story succeeds is due to two main factors: the remarkable work of David Gordon (director and choreographer, and co-writer with his son Ain) and the incredible individual performances. Gordon has created functional choreography and a seamless interface between singing and speech. Even more important than Gordon's work, however, is the ensemble nature of the cast which still allows for individual expression and characterization.
By far the most talented thespian of the group is Playten, whose performance shines. As Judy baby in Part One, her voice really does sound like a 4 year old's. With a nasal intonation, she sings the lullaby "Beauteeful," which is full of such comic lines as "life do your duty and make me a cutie." Most impressive of all is the next number, "Wanna Be A Man," where from phrase to phrase she alternates between her nasal baby voice (Judy baby) and a deeper chest voice (Punch Jr.). Her consistent differentiation between the two throughout the song is remarkable. Not surprisingly, Playten was just nominated for Philadelphia's Barrymore Award for her performance in this production.
An important backup to the cast is the simple yet elegant set, designed by David P. Gordon. All of the parts of the set in Part One are on wheels, allowing free movement and constant variation of the pieces. Most have swinging doors in them, reminiscent of the stages on which the puppets Punch and Judy traditionally perform.
Although most of the humor in Punch and Judy Get Divorced is clean, this musical does have underlying sexual themes. In Part One, the two Pollys (the musical's term for unmarried Judys), played well by Pashalinski and Grate, titter about their sexual exploits in "The Polly Song." Part Two reaches a new level of sexual complexity, as Judy baby's husband runs away from her to be with another man. (Of her husband's male friends who used to come visit, she sings bitterly that they were "envying me and flirting with him" instead of the other way round). In a slapstick touch, her husband returns near the end as Judy Bell (Evett), a transsexual telephone repairperson who is now attracted to other women. Nor is this the end of it all: Judy Jr. (Playten), daughter of Judy baby and Judy Bell, decides she's a lesbian, yet gets pregnant. The viewer is left with the sense that things have been taken just a little bit too far in Gordon's attempt to modernize Punch and Judy for the 1990s.
Punch and Judy Get Divorced has the potential to become very popular; like most good musicals, it has songs that are catchy without being trite, and a few themes that hit home. Satire can be defined as the art of making people laugh while dabbling in touchy subjects, and everyone laughs at this musical. But after they stop laughing, the married people in the audience mumble about how true to life the squabbling is; never-married people vow that their marriages will never be like that. No matter which category you fall into, Punch and Judy Ger Divorced is a worthwhile night of theater.