Review by Kitty Drexel
Cambridge, MA — Starlight Square is the brand, heckin’ new stage within Central Square intended for public performance, art and community brought to us by the Central Square Business Improvement District, Flagg Street Studio, and Boyes-Watson Architects. The performances are FREE thanks to their sponsors (although some dance classes are at a fee because teaching artists deserve to get paid). On Friday, August 14, we masked our faces and girded our loins to attend Sarah Nolan’s Judy Punches Back.
Central Square was not nearly as empty as I had imagined it to be. I had assumed that the pandemic had flushed out all its citizenry. I was incorrect. After much dedication and financial support from the Central Square Business Improvement District, Central Square is now merely a trimmed, tidily moistened armpit of human hustle: its trees are clinging to life; the streets are mildly less trash-cluttered; its residents are still their social selves. Some things never change.
Tucked behind H-Mart and the empty shell of what used to be Shalimar Foods & Spices, Starlight Square occupies the space of the Lot 5 parking area. Translucent white awning material with large purple lettered with sponsors are the walls of the community space. It has no ceiling but the sky. It allows rain, air, and sun to pass through but keeps people out. Starlight Square’s walls are, in effect, a huge mask hung by scaffolding instead of a face.
Patrons of Starlight Square must adhere to a simple but effective social contract in order to attend events. This code follows Massachusetts’ Safety Standards for Theaters and Performance Venues quarantine guidelines: stay home if you’re sick, cover your nose and mouth with a mask, wait patiently in line, give your contact info for tracing purposes.
I’d like to add a fifth guideline: if you can’t respect the boundaries of other people, shoot yourself into the moon. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in science, think vaccines are poison or are convinced that the pandemic is a liberal hoax. Public space is a privilege, not a right. If you can’t follow the rules then you can’t occupy public space. We learn this in kindergarten.
Persons attending Judy Punches Back will wait briefly in line to enter the square. Customer service reps for the organization greeted you at each turn to ensure that all are properly distanced. They were exceedingly polite under the duress.
No food or drink could be consumed in the area but blue port-o-potties were available to the public. We did not attempt them.
The Starlight Square audience is capped at 50 persons but the outside seating area is sized for at least twice that amount. After giving our name to the Box Office, another polite representative led people to their seats one party at a time. We were seated in grey plastic folding chairs distanced at least six-feet apart. There was enough crowd space that we could choose our seats in the audience. For once, it was possible to stretch my short legs without disturbing the patrons next to me.
Judy Punches Back began as the sun was setting. Nature’s lighting design complemented the show’s.
I’d like to think that my praise for Sarah Nolan is so objective as to be free from personal bias. In truth, I was and am so exceedingly grateful to see live theatre that I can only offer praise to Nolan, Lee Mikeska Gardener, the tech crew, the representatives, the volunteers, and, Hell, even the corporate sponsors with their soul-less eyes on our tax dollars. I don’t know if I’m capable of being objective because these are not normal circumstances.
My wife and I were terrified of getting sick as we rode the T. There were people in our car without a mask. We applied and reapplied hand sanitizer in copious amounts each time we touched something. The redline is as clean as it’s ever going to be because of its employee’s diligence and it still looks filthy.
We know several people who are healing from the unforeseen after-effects of catching COVID-19. One of them may have heart issues for the rest of her life. Another friend has been ill for two months because their immune system was decimated. One of my bosses from my first adult job died from coronavirus complications.
Walking Central Square’s streets has always carried a certain risk. That risk is now tripled because of the pandemic: cities are dirty; humans don’t follow directions; viruses are invisible.
Theatre is my favorite thing in the entire universe. Words cannot begin to describe my sublime elation at experiencing it in the flesh. No matter what show my brilliant wife and I saw after such long abstinence, I was always going to express heaps of humble gratitude and jubilation at its return.
It’s not the same but it’s something. Art is worth making even if it isn’t perfect. Because it isn’t perfect.
Sarah Nolan was generous with her time, energy, and practice. Judy Punches Back is clever and appeals to adults as well as children. Kids will enjoy the slapstick jokes. Adults will enjoy the visual references to the 2016 Women’s March and other feminist icons.
Judy Punches Back refers to Punch and Judy, the Commedia dell’arte puppet show that one can see played during crowd scenes in period movies. Mr. Punch is a serial abuser who traditionally takes his frustrations out by beating his wife Judy. Judy Punches Back play is light on domestic abuse but high on marital resentment. Adults concerned about the subject matter should know that no puppets were harmed in the performance of this comedy. Judy is defending herself; Mr. Punch had it coming for 400 years.
This puppet show has other elements that aren’t violent. There is a wee, grey cat in a pink pussy hat (if the cat’s likeness was available to buy, I’d purchase two: one for me and one for my nieces). Two energetic cheerleaders featuring the only puppet of color transition the scenes. A puppet policeman reminds us why the police should be defunded. Adults will guffaw and groan at a scene with an overwhelming HMO representative. Kids will laugh too because it’s funny.
Judy Punches Back with enthusiastic applause. It was good to be attending theatre again. It was good to be together, outside in Central Square on a mild Saturday evening. We couldn’t forget the pandemic but we could relax just enough to laugh together. I desperately needed to laugh that night.
We stood and quickly scooted out the front entrance. We braved the T again feeling a little less stressed and a little more hopeful.
Sarah Nolan is the resident artist at Puppet Showplace Theater. Her work is delightful. Her current show Judy Saves the Day is recommended for all ages 4 and up. More information about Nolan and her work can be found at the Puppet Showplace website.
If you saw Nolan’s work and enjoyed it as much as we did, please DONATE. Pay artists now so they can still work after the pandemic.