When the members of Louisville’s Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble head into rehearsal for a new play, they don’t have a script. They don’t have a director. What they have is an idea and roughly 500 years of comedic history behind them.
Their new show, “No Punchbacks,” is an homage to traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows, which owe a significant comedic debt to Italian commedia dell’arte. Co-artistic director Greg Maupin (all six troupe members are co-artistic directors) calls commedia “the sitcoms of 16th century Italy.”
“They’re semi-improvised pieces that were done by masked performers throughout Europe in that era,” he says. “Incredibly influential. A lot of – especially early – Shakespeare comedies and Moliere all come out of that.”
A Le Petomane show might begin with a history buff idea, but it will end up just as informed by Saturday morning cartoons by the time the curtain goes up.
Each show begins with casting – out of the ensemble members, Maupin, Abigail Bailey Maupin and Kristie Rolape were available for this winter’s show. What follows is a highly collaborative process that starts with an idea – in this case, a live-action Punch and Judy show – and develops into a stylized brand of physical comedy filtered through the signature smart-yet-silly aesthetic the troupe has honed over time.
A small taste: Rolape plays a coquettish French sausage with a rousing musical number. It’s that kind of show.
She also plays a giant-fisted baby, man-handled on stage like a life-sized puppet by Maupin and Bailey Maupin, who play Punch and Judy. True to tradition, Judy is a shrew, Punch is a fool, and they brawl.
The devising process begins with a large piece of paper, soon covered in stock characters and brainstormed gags. The jokes – like “Punch throws the baby out of a window” – are refined into scenes in rehearsal, step by step until a script forms.
“I should explain why the situation is upsetting,” says Maupin in rehearsal. “Baby falls out the window one time, shame on baby. Baby falls out the window several times, eventually, wife’s threats become more homicidal. That’s straight out of the marriage vows.”
There’s a hangman, a dog, a lonely constable, and even Death herself (Bailey Maupin) makes an appearance. During rehearsal, the actors sort through their own stock voices, deciding on the right tone for each character. Bailey Maupin decides that Death will be Southern (“a sort of Blanche du Noir.”). They switch characters quickly by using a different mask for each role.
The masks are a nod to commedia, and they change how the actors move on stage — every reaction is a head-to-toe affair, with the spine — not the face — leading the way.
The masks are grotesque, designed to show up across the street at a fair and in the back row of a tavern. Maupin makes the multiple masks each show demands from molds made of each actor’s face. These masks cover more than half of the actor’s face, so movements have to be large and precise.
“A lot of times when we act, we’re eyebrows actors,” says Rolape. “Instead, since the spine’s doing the work, I have to make sure if I’m sad, my entire body is down and sad and shaking, and it’s not just a little bit of water in the corner of my eye.”
“You can’t be a method actor when you’re doing this sort of thing,” adds Bailey Maupin. “Feeling stuff doesn’t help your performance. It actually makes it worse.”
The masks aren’t just a nod to history. They make the violent characters seem less human, more like cartoons, or, as Greg says, like the puppets themselves.
“There was a question of how we could translate this sort of whapping each other with sticks and throwing the baby out of the window, that is a tradition of these puppet shows that little children laugh at in the UK,” says Maupin. “Can you do that with people? And what does it turn into? And is it still funny?”
The actors attack the question with glee, solving big, conceptual problems like how to convey the imaginary scenery of the puppet show on stage with cheap yet funny solutions like painting the stage walls with chalkboard paint so they can draw on the walls, Wile E. Coyote-style. For the baby’s cartoonish, oversized fists, a tie-in toy from the recent animated film “Wreck-It Ralph.”
The actors work hard in rehearsal to make sure audiences don’t have to do their homework before the show. “No Punchbacks” isn’t an academic exercise. Punch goes on a journey (of sorts), but this is no morality play. It’s 500-year-old jokes filtered through a Looney Tunes lens.
“It puts the ‘dung’ in bildungsroman. No, no. That’s not funny,” says Maupin with a laugh. “But it’s that kind of show.”
“No Punchbacks” opened Thursday and runs through February 17 at The Bard’s Town.