Curtain Call: Penny Plain

 Venue: Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St., Toronto)

Starring: Ronnie Burkett and an assortment of puppets from his Theatre of Marionettes

Dramaturge: Iris Turcott

Music and Sound Design: John Alcorn

Genre: Puppetry, Drama/Dark Comedy

Rating: 14+

Choice Quote:  “I don’t need a companion to be my eyes. I chose to stop seeing a long time ago.” – Penny Plain

What’s it about?: Killer viruses. Contaminated food. Ravenous marsupials. As the apocalypse descends upon humanity, Penny Plain, aging and blind, relies on her companion, a talking dog named Geoffrey, to help her navigate the world. Geoffrey, however, decides to venture out into the world in an effort to become “a gentleman,” leaving Penny all alone.

Eventually, Penny settles on Tuppence, an orphan who pretends to be a dog, as Geoffrey’s replacement. Together, they attempt to weather the decaying world from Penny’s boarding house, while encountering a cast of characters that includes a cross-dressing banker, a homicidal editor and her overbearing mother, ultra-religious American “refugees” and even Geppetto.

Is it any good?: When reviewing Penny Plain, it may be best to approach the show from three angles: the story, the puppets/puppetry and the performer.

The puppets, obviously, are the backbone of this show. The brilliance of the performance lies not only in Burkett’s craftsmanship or the fact that after a short while you forget that they are puppets. It’s the nuisances Burkett achieves through them that consistently amaze. Whether it’s the gravity of a situation conveyed in silence through subtle gestures or witnessing a character pick up an object free of any sloppy maneouvering or obvious stage trick, these subtleties breathe life and emotion into the artfully constructed wooden characters.

On that same note, Burkett the performer does an outstanding job of staying out of the way and letting the marionettes do the talking, so to speak. He’s much further away from his puppets than he’s ever been on stage yet manipulates them seamlessly while keeping track of where to retrieve each one when needed. Meanwhile, he manages to keep all of the characters’ voices straight, even when multiple characters are engaged in frenzied debate. Burkett is truly a master of his craft.

The plot intrigues, and at points seems inspired by something out of Beckett or Arthur Miller. The dialogue is at times touching, insightful, and quite funny. Of course, as with any show, there are moments that could be sped up or perhaps cut out, but their effect on the show overall is minimal. One of the highlights is the appearance of Geppetto and his grown “son.” The symbolism, in terms of the plot and of the character’s relation to Burkett himself, is ripe for interpretation, but the Italian puppet maker is a highlight – as is his second attempt at making a real boy.

The music by Burkett’s partner, Canadian jazz vocalist, John Alcorn, provides a very impactful, and at times haunting, exclamation mark on this show and its influence on the emotional output of the play should not be understated.

The set is minimal, with two armchairs for Penny and her companion, with a stained glass-like tree taking up a wall behind them. Burkett wields the puppets from platforms above this area but still in plain sight of the audience. Those marionettes not in use hang, almost ominously, from behind the platforms, providing for a fantastic visual in the right light.

Can I bring my kids and grandkids to see it?: They have to be over 14 years of age to gain entry to the show. As long as they don’t possess any hysterical fear of marionettes, they’ll enjoy the show as much as you do.   

Overall: 4 out of 5 (A well-deserved ovation)

How long is its run?: Penny Plain runs at Toronto’s Factory Theatre until Feb. 26. It then continues onto Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (March 13-April 1) and Montreal’s Place des Arts (April 12-21).

-Mike Crisolago

For Zoomer‘s interview with puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, click here.