UNDERCURRENTS 2015: “Punch Up” Packs Serious Comedic Heat

Following a lovely opening night party that boasted a fine spread courtesy of the Albion Rooms and affordable alcoholic beverages thanks to Dominion City Brewery Co. and the Wine Rack, I was back at the Undercurrents theatre festival Friday night to see three more shows. While Punch Up and Much Ado About Feckin’ Pirates take place on the studio stage at Arts Court and are part of the ticketed lineup, Air is a pay-what-you-can performance and happens in the studio lobby. Though sometimes it is hard to sit through three shows in one evening, the festival has done a nice job in balancing the hour long shows with shorter pieces like Air and next week’s Jerk It.  It’s really worth buying an evening pass to Undercurrents: in the time it takes to see one show at a large venue, you get three shows…and for cheaper! In any case, if there was one thing I took away from Friday night it’s that there are some real comedic juggernauts at this year’s festival.

I started with Theatre Brouhaha’s Punch Up, written and directed by Kat Sandler which landed both a “Best of Fest” and “Patrons’ Pick” from the 2014 Toronto Fringe Festival. The play has a relatively simple, though unique, premise: Duncan (Tim Walker) kidnaps washed up comic Pat (Colin Munch) as part of his plan to make the Saddest Girl in the World (Caitlin Driscoll) laugh. Duncan hopes that Pat, being the Funniest Man Alive, can teach him how to be funny in the remaining hours before Duncan’s dinner-breakfast with said girl. Not without its own dark undertones, between chloroform, failed marriages, and suicide cassettes, this piece aptly describes itself as combining the “primacy of story” with “rapid pace.”

Sandler’s text is killer. It’s sharp, but sweet: juxtaposing the biting feelings of frustration and sarcastic nature of Pat against the charming well-meaning ignorance of Duncan. Its high intensity moments between the two men are again balanced with darkly humorous scenes where Brenda (Saddest Girl in the World) describes her tragic experience with love, allowing the audience to take a short break from the captor-captive bit. The discussion about comedy between Pat and Duncan and the question of what makes something funny is both amusing in practice and philosophical in thought. The show makes us work: while we laugh, the show asks us to think about why we’re laughing.  We are at once laughing at the fact that Pat can lead Duncan so easily into Abbott and Costello’s famed “Who’s on First?” bit and then laughing at how Duncan has neither heard of the bit, nor understands it (a character not understanding a famous bit where the comedy is based on misunderstanding is a particular theatrical gem). And THEN, we can’t help but relate with Duncan: why is the bit so funny?  Most spectacularly, the piece manages to make us analyze why comedy is comedic without making it dull: it just makes it better!

The performers themselves are a riot exuding professionalism and unity. Excellent timing and speed allows the scenes to build up to these incredible heights that are then usually only broken by a violent and comedic outburst and we start right back from the beginning. You’re invested in each of the three characters’ stories and journeys and, admit it, a part of you wanted Pat to stay chained up in Duncan’s “super-secret” hideout for a little bit longer too. Laughed ‘til I cried, Punch Up is a serious must see.

If you happen to be in Toronto, Kat Sandler will have a show playing at the Tarragon theatre in Toronto next season as part of their Playwrights Unit.

Undercurrents theatre festival is running February 12th-21st.

Ticket info and festival schedule can be found here.

Written by Brie McFarlane

Theatre critic and live performance junkie, Brie is dedicated to covering the Ottawa theatre scene and showcasing the local artists and their work. In founding the New Ottawa Critics she hopes to find/start new conversations between artists, critics, and audiences. Currently Brie is undertaking a Masters of Arts degree in Theatre at the University of Ottawa. She is also a big fan of all things social media. Follow her on Twitter as herself or the New Ottawa Critics account.