'Punch Up' by Kat Sandler

Presented by Theatre on the Ridge at Scugog Shores Museum

Presented by Theatre on the Ridge at Scugog Shores Museum

Joe Szekeres

Photo Credit: Barry McCluskey

A quirky, oddball comedy with an occasional touch of tragic element accentuated by smart direction.

I’ve never seen any of Kat Sandler’s plays performed and am hoping to see more so I must commend Theatre on the Ridge for introducing me to her work.

First, a definition of the term. ‘Punch up’ is “to sharpen jokes and/or context and make them snappier for comic and/or hilarious effect.” (That’s at least what I gleaned from Sandler’s at times biting and acerbic script on how we view what becomes funny in life thanks to the three misfits we are about to meet.

Washed-up comedian Pat Wallace (Henry Oswald Peirson) is in the middle of performing a stand-up routine and failing quite badly at that. He has just broken up with his wife and writing partner, Izzy. We hear from behind us in the audience oddball Duncan (Landon Nesbitt) whooping it up at the bad jokes Pat delivers.

Duncan is a boring guy who works at a bread factory and leads an ordinary life of nothing special. In the following scene after the comedy club, Duncan stumbles across a suicidal young woman, Brenda (Karly Friesen) outside a building who is threatening to jump and end her life. Convinced that he has fallen in love with Brenda, Duncan strikes up a strange deal with her. He invites the suicidal woman to dinner at his place. Brenda will give her life another chance if he can get her to laugh. Duncan will help Brenda go through with her plan to kill herself if he's unsuccessful.

Duncan is not funny at all. He chloroforms Pat, kidnaps him and chains him to a chair leg in a ‘super secret hideaway’. Duncan wants Pat to come up with a perfect comic routine to help make Brenda laugh. There’s a catch though. Pat is going through his emotional issues of the breakup with his ex-wife compounded by the reality that he is being held hostage and fearing for his safety and life.

A bizarre story indeed.

But with director Carey Nicholson’s smart direction of never allowing the comic intensity to venture out of control, I found myself wanting to stay with the story right to the end because I wanted to see where it would go. Nicholson beautifully uses moments of tableaux to create some striking visual effects which the actors held without the slightest movement.

There is that dramatic adage “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”. Sandler’s script aptly reveals this truth. I wonder if the cast had quite an intense workout during the rehearsal process in delving into the story because there is so much going on. There is Sandler’s initial text where comic timing and delivery are of the utmost importance in staging. On top of that, there are layers of subtext which underscore the humour. Additionally, some of the jokes, innuendo, and anecdotes would require some historical understanding of comedy writing, its genesis and those who paved the way forward.

Sometimes comedy is found in just living life experiences where we can find the humour lying underneath the sadness, the heartache, the drama, and the terror. The late Joan Rivers once commented on where we would be if we didn’t laugh especially after 9/11.

Did this energetically young vibrant cast hold that earned life experience to successfully accomplish the task to tell this, at times, cutting and scalding story with humour, since we all need a good laugh about now as Director Nicholson wrote in her Programme Note?

At this opening night outdoor performance, I felt they assuredly did.

The task now from this cast is to ensure it remains there.

Henry Oswald Peirson’s failed Pat Wallace nicely reflected that sad sack of an individual who intently feels he has lost everything for which he has worked so tremendously hard. Peirson effectively incorporated this feeling of defeat into his body with his sunken shoulders. For a good portion of the performance, Peirson’s ankle is attached to a chair leg. He now has a responsibility to convey that realism of constriction of being held captive against his will. Peirson maintained it admirably.

Landon Nesbitt is an at times childlike, kooky, loveable, and goofy Duncan. That big boyish grin he sometimes shows when he is pleased with himself made him endearing to me. I especially loved the rapid-fire pause and interplay between him and Peirson on the meaning of the word ‘anecdote’ and the ‘Who’s on First’ Abbott and Costello routine. And yet, Nesbitt still never let go of the sense that Duncan is a kidnapper and that there is something off about him. There were a couple of looks, moments and pauses he delivered towards Peirson where I would not want to be on the receiving end.

As suicidal Brenda, Karly Friesen’s terrific delivery of monologues of people whom she has loved and lost under abnormal circumstances is another highlight of the show. Friesen delivers these monologues in a calm, matter-of-fact manner where she allowed the words to speak for themselves. This was an excellent choice she made because it made me experience empathy and pathos for Brenda and wonder just how much more could this poor woman endure in her life.

Final Comments: A line from Carey Nicholson’s Director’s Note made me think further about our collective human experience over these last two years: “The power of both laughter and love is greater when we’re not a solo act. Life is better when we ‘punch up’ each other and allow ourselves to become blended.”
During these last two years, we’ve all experienced peaks and valleys of the sometimes-absurd paths we’ve all had to walk. Knowing we’re not alone in how we feel about where we are now, and the fact that we can ‘punch up’ each other as we move forward into the unknown is just what we need.

Thank you to this cast and Theatre on the Ridge for this reality check.

The production runs approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.

Performances run to August 6 at Scugog Shores Museum, 16210 Island Road, Port Perry.

For tickets and other information, visit www.theatreontheridge.ca

PUNCH UP by Kat Sandler
Presented by Theatre on the Ridge
Director: Carey Nicholson
Stage Manager: Christina Naumovski
Sound Design: Lyle Corrigan
Sound Operation and Sound Effects: Lyle Corrigan, Max Hoehn, Andy Williamson
Lighting Technicians: Max Hoehn, Andy Williamson
Costume & Props: Carey Nicholson

Cast: Henry Oswald Peirson, Landon Nesbitt, Karly Friesen

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