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A scene from Ronnie Burkett's "Penny Plain" (Trudie Lee)
A scene from Ronnie Burkett's "Penny Plain" (Trudie Lee)

Review

It's Doomsday, and these are definitely not the Muppets Add to ...

Penny Plain

  • Created and performed by Ronnie Burkett
  • At The Cultch in Vancouver

Especially now, with the hype for the coming Muppets movie in high gear, the term “puppet show,” for many, is going to evoke a certain expectation. Penny Plain is not that show. There are laughs, to be sure. But mostly it is terrifying.

Dark humour is nothing new for Ronnie Burkett. The Alberta-born, Toronto-based puppeteer has earned an international reputation creating smart, sophisticated works over 25 years with his Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. In Penny Plain, which opened in Vancouver Thursday night following its world premiere in Edmonton in September (and a run in Calgary), there are significant emotional strings attached to the entertainment. Burkett is light on his feet as he operates his marionettes on the catwalk above, but on the stage below, things are heavy.

The show opens with a montage of news clips, making it evident that the end is nigh. The banking system has collapsed, Iceland is submerged, kangaroos are attacking humans. A global pandemic is killing millions, daily. The government has enacted a “Stay at home, stay safe” campaign that is upsetting gays and lesbians; they want to greet the end of the world with a party.

By the time the lights come up, it is clear these are very dark days indeed.

And then: a warm domestic scene: Penny Plain, an elderly blind woman, is chatting with her canine companion Geoffrey – both of them seated in wingback chairs. Despite the end-of-days situation, their conversation is civilized, not hysterical. But Geoffrey has some bad news of his own: He is going to use the apocalyptic opportunity to go out in the world and try to live as a man. He has arranged a number of potential companions to take his place, and be Penny’s eyes. She’s more interested in her ears. “Who will listen with me? Who will listen to me?”

The candidates range from an oversexed Chihuahua to a white-trash poodle to a wide-eyed orphan named Tuppence, who pretends to be a dog. She wins the spot.

Penny runs a boarding house, and her tenants include a murderous red-pencil-wielding editor and her demonic mother, a cross-dressing bank teller with a heart of gold, a woman approaching middle age who desperately wants a child, and an older puppeteer – Geppetto Jones – whose first creation, now going by the name Pino, has left him feeling betrayed.

These interactions become more poignant as the play – an hour and 40 minutes with no break (and it flies) – continues. One exchange – between Tuppence and Oliver, a boy wearing a prep-school blazer and a gas mask (removed for this scene) – is particularly moving for its awkward universality. Whatever is developing between these two will not be allowed to take hold. Time is not on their side.

The slam of emotion – when Geppetto and Pino embrace, for example – is a surprise; can little wooden puppets really evoke such reactions?

The marionettes are beautiful – small works of great art that, despite the long strings in this production, Burkett handles with shocking mastery. (And when he doesn’t, he delights with an improvised line: “What’s the matter with your head?” “I don’t know. Must be opening night.”) As many times as you might force yourself to look up into the shadows to watch him operate, your eye is always drawn down-string to the puppets into which he has so authentically infused life. His talent is simply extraordinary.

It’s too bad he at times goes for cheap laughs (the “doggie position” double entendre was a particularly low point), but this is a minor irritant. The writing is for the most part brilliant, so effective that this rumination on what is natural – and how nature is changing – evoked real terror as I contemplated what we are doing to the planet, and where we might be headed.

“Dad, the world’s gone mad,” Pino tells Geppetto. “No one wants to see a puppet show now.”

Wrong. This is exactly the time to see a puppet show. This puppet show.

Penny Plain is at The Cultch in Vancouver until Dec. 17 and later travels to Toronto’s Factory Theatre (Jan. 20-Feb. 26), the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (March 13-April 1) and Place des Arts in Montreal (April 12-21).

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