Penny Plain anything but ordinary
With 2012 touted as the End of Days by groups citing the conclusion of the Mayan calendar, heightened interest in the unlikely event of our demise has brought a renewed focus to the environmental movement. Enter Ronnie Burkett and the marionettes of his newest touring show, Penny Plain, where the end of the world takes place in the living room of a blind senior citizen.
As a celebration of 25 years of Burkett's Theatre of Marionettes, Penny Plain is a wonderfully rich drama. Not only does Burkett's craft take centre stage — the subtle movements of the wrist that animate feeling — but, above all, the story is a layered and thoughtful warning about environmental negligence.
The inhabitants inside the boarding house of Miss Penny Plain and her dog Jeffrey react to the world's decline at the hands of a global virus. The impending doom inspires her lodgers to live out their final days before it all ends: Jeffery the dog wants to explore the world as a gentleman, Evelyn desires a child all her own, and Jubilee wants to be free from her domineering mother. Penny, meanwhile, just wants some companionship, which she finds in the form of an orphan named Tuppence.
While the environment slowly springs up into the house (an indication that humankind is no longer in control), the characters navigate the Brave New World and their position in it. It's a dark and chilling text, tempered with comedic moments, which reaches towards something we already know to be true: "nature is changing."
The most inventive of these threads is the inclusion of Geppetto and Pinocchio — a parallel to the relationship between creator and humankind which illustrates that that which is created cannot always be controlled. Geppetto and his son have one of the most poignant moments in the play during their reconciliation. And the father's delivery of a child of the new world to Evelyn is a glimmer of strange hope.
Not all of the storylines add value to Burkett's examination of morality under dire conditions. The relationship between Jubilee and her geriatric mother is a toxic one full of crude humour and obnoxious screeching, and the American couple, while a fun caricature, balloons beyond believability.
On a two-level set which he also designed, Burkett jumps and jogs across the wooden platforms to make the world take shape through thousands of miniature gestures. It's no secret, but Burkett's technical skill and ability to manipulate marionettes is astounding. The narrative runs full throttle — he speeds ahead and trusts that the audience will catch up.
The stand-out moment in the show comes without strings attached when Burkett uses hand puppets to narrate a moment from Penny's childhood. From dialogue to tone, the vignette is superbly crafted in its description of heartbreak. Kevin Humphrey's lighting finds the right hues for Penny's world, and John Alcorn punctuates the right moments with sound and music.
In Penny Plain, Burkett peels back an outer layer to reach down and find our vulnerabilities. The result is an engrossing portrait of civility in the face of death, which is anything but ordinary.
Penny Plain, written and performed by Ronnie Burkett, runs at the Factory Theatre until February 26.
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