Theatre Review: Penny Plain
By Allan Gould
Burkett: master of puppets (Image: Trudy Lee)
For those of you who have seen any of the wildly daring, stunningly delicate, profoundly memorable shows written, performed, “acted” and presented by Western Canadian-born-and-raised Ronnie Burkett, who creates, designs and brings to life the most astonishing puppets you have ever seen, he is back with a new show, Penny Plain. I treasure his regular appearances in Toronto, his chosen city for over a decade now. His productions are very adult in design, language and theme, quickly driving any Punch and Judy or Muppets memories out of your head.
When I met this extraordinary talent many years ago, interviewing him for Post City Magazines, I was overwhelmed by his brilliance, his talent, his seriousness and his comic genius. Perhaps it is too much to ask that such an artist should be as gifted in his script writing as he is in his puppetry. But his themes are certainly noteworthy and challenging, and no one can deny that he is always eager to ask the big questions about life (and sometimes answer them).
Penny Plain is his latest work, and it is not his best, even though his themes — the apocalypse, an entire world filled with riots and bloodshed — are often (although not always) as serious and as meaningful as Samuel Beckett’s.
The title character is an elderly blind woman who, as the play begins, listens to radio and TV with her beloved dog Geoffrey. Loud, cacophonous music blares as we hear different voices off-stage announce calamity after calamity: “panic continues;” “the virus has claimed millions of lives in China alone ” and “Iceland has sunk beneath the waves.” (Some theatre-goers will be most upset to hear about the three million kangaroos attacking men, women and children across Australia.)
This is a fine way to begin a play, and my wife and I were quickly caught up with Burkett's three dozen-plus awesome puppets as he yanked and pulled their strings from high above on his multi-leveled stage; the movements of most of them so delicate that one gets the feeling that each puppet could perform intricate, microscopic surgery if put to the task.
You have not lived until you've seen an elderly puppet push her tiny walker across the stage, or the faces — some of which are reminiscent of Picasso in his blue period — that this genius has molded and sculpted. Burkett is truly that good.
The brilliant puppeteer, admired and even worshipped around the world for his skills, also gives us a giant dog eager to leave the confines of the rooming house run by his blind mistress; a murderous editor who loves to dig red pencils into the bodies of enemies (a great, if nasty jab at cruel critics like myself) and then the rather vulgar female puppet from a right-wing, sex-obsessed, religiously-fanatical American couple, who is so incredibly buxom that if she caught a chest cold, she would die.
Burkett is capable of images and one-liners that can tear at your heart, such as when a childless female puppet confronts Geppetto — yes, he of Pinocchio fame — and begs him, “make me a puppet baby,” or when a character cries out in the final moments of this 90-minute, no intermission evening that “apple-filled Eden became a Hell.” And the last sentence — “Nature is changing!” — delivered by the dog of the ancient Penny Plain, is actually horrific, if I were willing to spoil the power of the context of those words.
Am I glad I saw Burkett's latest, masterful puppet production? Yes. Am I still in awe of his dozens of voices and puppets? How can I not be? Do I wish that he could write scripts and create characters as well as he can create puppet shows? That might be too much to ask for in this flawed, dying world.
Penny Plain, Factory Theatre, 416-504-4473. Runs until Feb. 26.