Pop Culture TheaterMarch 06, 2012

The performance group is named “Team Sunshine Performance Corporation.”

The show is called Punchkapow.

Do you detect a trace of the ironic here?

Punchkapow (Trailer) from Makoto Hirano on Vimeo.

Punchkapow comes to New Jersey as part of this year’s Solo Flights Festival at Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Theatre in Trenton. As their website tells us, TSunPCo “makes and performs original devised physical theatre works (their emphasis) through its own brand of collaborative play-making and writing … the pieces are rooted in an exploration of a life that is undeniably American.”

A recent conversation with Alex Torra, a member of TSunPCo and the creator/director of the group’s first evening-length piece, Punchkapow, fully fleshed out that description. Alex explains that he, Benjamin Camp and Makoto Hirano, founding members of the group, were all individually involved in the Philadelphia area theatre scene, where they regularly encountered one another and worked together for a bit with Pig Iron Theatre Company.

At a point in this convergence, the three came up with a somewhat wild idea – to create a show about the aspect of American pop culture that fully embraces graphic video games, action movies, comic books and the “pretend violence” that naturally occurs in those mediums.

With their similar training – Benjamin and Alex in physical theatre and Makoto in dance – and a shared vision of making works that rely more heavily on what bodies convey than what words can say, the trio embarked on their creative journey. But it was not a quick trip. “We had busy lives – day jobs, other work we were making,” Alex says. “So, we tried to figure out what we loved and what would be fun to do, and then find a context in which to present these things.”

Nearly two years later, in November 2010, the piece debuted at Underground Arts at the Wolf Building in Philadelphia, and ran for 7 performances. A two-performance remount was presented for the Network of Ensemble Theatre (NET) in Philadelphia in January 2011.

“The audience reaction was kind of amazing,” Alex says. “We got a lot of feedback. Some people thought it was great fun and others saw it as a provocative art piece. And many said it moved them,” Alex continued. “One person told us the play helped him understand his brother better.”

For content, the creators drew on influences like Jet Li films, Grand-Theft-Auto-esque games, and current comic books and graphic novels. “We respect older works,” Alex says, “but this piece is definitely about the contemporary American experience. We took what we see in culture and our lives and we put it on stage.”

The three have all worked with artists who create plays that are not plot driven, and they used this experience to help craft their show. “We tell a story,” Alex says, “but it’s not a plot that strings it together.”

And the presentation is precise and crisp. “There is not a single prop,” Alex says, “and a lot of pantomime, which is image-based and very physical – kind of like poetry on stage.”

An art form like pantomime serves this production well. “It’s an old tradition and we bring it into the 21st century,” Alex explains. “When you pantomime something, it is physically there. And, partly because of that, the play does a funny trick on you. It can be hard to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins.”

Does Punchkapow have a moral or a lesson that the audience can take away with them? “Well, it’s about friendship,” Alex tells me, “and the ways that men relate. They play together. They construct complete fantasies and demolish enemies and save the world,” he continues, “but they can’t seem to talk to each other.”

Punchkapow will be performed on Saturday, March 17 and Saturday, March 24 at Passage Theatre Company. “We are excited about performing at Passage,” Alex says. “It’s an awesome theatre.” And these shows provide an opportunity for the play to reach a broader-range audience and encounter new viewers.

“What we are making is completely accessible,” Alex says. “It is 100% for people who don’t think they like theatre.”

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Shen Shellenberger
Shen Shellenberger

Shen’s been a Jersey girl for most of her life, other than living for a three-year stretch in Portland, Oregon, and six magical months in Tokyo. Shen loves the arts in all of its various forms – from the beauty of a perfectly-placed base hit to the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll – and has successfully passed on this appreciation to her three grown children. Shen’s most recent jobs include WXPN (1993-2001) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2003-present). Shen also has been a working freelancer for 25 years, and operated her own frame shop in Mt. Holly in the late-70s.