The House Theatre of Chicago, now celebrating the start of its 15th season, has a great gift for transforming its home in the Chopin Theatre’s Upstairs space into a perfect environment for each production it creates.

For its chilling show “United Flight 232,” it put us right inside the cabin of a jet plane destined for disaster. Now, with the world premiere of “A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch,” we enter the world of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet theater — a form rooted in the comic types devised for the Italian commedia dell’arte, and later adapted (as in this show) in Victorian England.

That later English version featured a single puppeteer hidden inside a booth, who manipulated both the violence-prone, hook-nosed Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy. The violence of the scenario played out supposedly served as both an expose of human cruelty and a creepy form of catharsis. And thanks to Lee Keenan’s set (with its red-and-white-striped booth, its curtained wooden structures suggesting marionette theaters as well as gallows, and a slew of elaborate pulley systems), Jesse Mooney-Bullock’s splendid puppets and Izumi Inaba’s wonderfully imaginative costumes, we are taken inside the puppet booth and the puppeteer’s home workshop.

In addition, director Shade Murray has assembled a gifted cast that deftly finesses aspects of puppetry, clowning, farce, dance and music, and, best of all, introduces audiences to the exceptionally beguiling talent of a young actress named Sarah Cartwright. (Remember that name.)

‘A COMEDICAL TRAGEDY FOR MISTER PUNCH’
Somewhat recommended
When: Through Oct. 23
Where: The House Theatre of Chicago
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division
Tickets: $30 – $35
Info: (773) 769-3832;
www.thehousetheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and
20 minutes with one intermission

Sarah Cartwright (left) is Charlotte, with Joey Steakley as Joey the Clown, and a hand puppet by Jesse Mooney-Bullock in The House Theatre of Chicago production of "A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Sarah Cartwright (left) is Charlotte, with Joey Steakley as Joey the Clown, and a hand puppet by Jesse Mooney-Bullock in The House Theatre of Chicago production of “A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The problematic element of the show (and this is frequently the case at The House) is its script. Kara Davidson has set up a potentially rich premise in “Mr. Punch,” as the brutality of real life intersects with the brutality of master puppeteer Pietro (the ever graceful, wily Adrian Danzig).

Working the streets of London, Pietro encounters orphaned street urchin Charlotte (Cartwright). After forcing her to cut her beautiful long hair (to be used on a puppet head), and answer to the name of Charlie, he takes her on as something of a generally unpaid apprentice, a lookout (Pietro is ever evading “the law”), and maybe even a surrogate daughter. Exceptionally imaginative in her own right, Charlotte begins to weave original puppet scenarios. But happy endings elude everyone in this play, including the Punch’s much-abused, blimp-like baby (Michael E. Smith), and Charlotte herself, who suffers a bloody leg wound (and is stitched up in a rare act of compassion by Pietro).

Davidson’s story has its moments, including deft work by Echaka Agba as Polly, a prostitute with a sense of romance; Carolyn Hoerdemann as Punch’s wife, Judy, and a blind woman; Owais Ahmed as a haughty wealthy man; Will Casey as a brutal policeman, and Johnny Arena as a life-size Mister Punch. But the whole thing meanders and is need of considerable editing, greater clarity and a far stronger drive to its conclusion.

But then there is Cartwright — with her delicate yet wonderfully expressive face, her beautiful sense of movement, her total theatrical intelligence and charm. She is, all by herself, worth a visit to this flawed but ambitious show.