BWW Reviews: PENNY PLAIN Displays Masterful Marionettes
Anyone with an interest in movies or theatre can confess to at least a few "end of the world" selections. Some of us can easily admit to more than a few- weather events, disease outbreak, aliens. They're captivating, in an "oh, I really hope this doesn't happen" kind of way.
In PENNY PLAIN, a marionette performance created and performed by Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, it certainly seems to be the end of the world right from the beginning. Penny, an elderly blind woman, sits in her boarding house listening to the news, as well as reports from her eccentric boarders and squatters. She struggles to hold on to what she enjoys in the midst of the chaos, all the while searching for companionship "to wait for the end".
As Penny waits and mourns the departure of her beloved dog Jeffrey, the boarders approach the inevitable in a variety of ways: militant fervor, a quest for reconciliation and last attempts to get what they really wanted out of life. There are many bittersweet moments in this, as well as a carousel of dark but smart humor and wit.
The set is a piped platform, lit from all directions in order to create various natural effects. Haunting sound cues and blackouts help to transition scenes, as well as several voiceovers of news stories to illustrate the growingly horrid progression of the outside world. Burkett moves his pieces around as needed, including a few small backdrops and stands so that he can maneuver the puppets at two different heights. To his credit, he makes it look easy. The puppets are incredibly detailed in craftsmanship, and several require two versions, depending on where they appear on the scaffolding.
Burkett's command of the marionettes in his show is unparalleled. Older puppets easily look slumped over. A Chihuahua has legs that spin in a style that would make the Road Runner look lethargic. And all puppets that come in contact with each other do so in a way that appears inherently human. I cannot say enough about how enjoyable it was to watch each of their movements and interactions.
But movement alone doesn't make a character as relatable as many of those found in this show. They have to have voices and intonations that match. Burkett's work in this regard has several highlights: a poodle channeling Rosie Perez, two greedy Southern evangelists and a reclusive but grating old woman whose constant diatribes can make you shudder.
There were some vocal similarities that made it hard to discern between characters. The two young characters sounded almost identical, and perhaps older than they were intended to be. Tuppence, the girl, also seemed to take on Penny's voice for a while once she was introduced, with Penny going significantly lower in register. Some moments felt rushed, perhaps to show the characters nerves, but they didn't need to be. This puppeteer constantly had the audience thoroughly engaged.
If you are a student or fan of all things puppetry, wit and dark humor, PENNY PLAIN is the perfect show for you. When the world has gone mad, as one character explains, it just may be the perfect time for a puppet show.
PENNY PLAIN runs during the Kennedy Center World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014 for two more performances this weekend: Friday, March 21, at 7:30pm, and Saturday, March 22nd at 7:30pm, in the Terrace Theater. Runtime is 120 minutes. The show is intended for mature audiences. Find out more here.
To learn about all of the WORLD STAGES: International Theater Festival performances running this month, visit the Kennedy Center's website. Photo by Trudie Lee.