As many Brandeis students gathered on Chapels Field for Springfest, I decided to attend a different kind of rowdy performance: a puppet show full of slapstick for the kids and political jokes to get a few chuckles out of the parents. On Sunday, April 7, I sat down in the second row of the SCC Theater, surrounded by children with their parents and facing a classic boxy puppet theater alone on the stage. To American puppet theatergoers, the stock story of a Punch and Judy show is completely foreign. But these British archetypes of a dysfunctional puppet family — and perhaps an entire dysfunctional society — have been popping up at fairs and festivals in the English countryside for nearly 400 years. 

Puppeteer Sarah Nolen, with whom I spoke after the show, told me that she learned about Punch and Judy shows while studying for her masters in puppet arts (that’s a real degree you can get, folks). She was fascinated by the violence and audacity of a children’s story that follows the rascal Mr. Punch as he berates his wife, throws his baby across the stage and battles an alligator, a police officer, a doctor and the Devil himself. Nolen became interested in telling a different story: one focusing on Punch’s long-suffering wife, Judy. A “Judy and Punch Show,” as she calls it, shows the struggles of the modern feminist housewife. When her husband asks her to make him a sandwich, she produces giant pieces of bread and veggies and literally makes her husband into a sandwich. When her baby cries, she soothes him with a smartphone. When she is attacked by an alligator and reports it to the police, she is told that she must have been “asking for it” because alligators love bright colors and she was wearing a bright yellow dress. To update the story for modern audiences, Nolen replaced the character of a doctor with a health insurance salesman and the Devil with the “Perfect Judy” — a demonic, all-too-perfect alter ego who tortures Judy by telling her she’s not good enough. 

The children sitting around me, while smirking and skeptical of a puppet show at first, were howling with laughter and gasping in fear by the end. Parents told me they wished Brandeis had better publicity for the festival, since such clearly talented artists were being showcased. When I asked her what she thought of her audiences’ reactions, Nolen told me that she sometimes gets angry remarks from parents who say they don’t want to discuss such sensitive political topics with their kids, but she sees it as her responsibility as an artist to facilitate such important conversations.

Sarah Nolen is a resident artist at Puppet Place Theater in Brookline. It was lovely to escape for an afternoon into the raucous world of an ancient British puppet family with fascinating modern twists.