Penny Plain – Review

Penny Plain

Martha Cohen Theatre

October 18 to November 6, 2011

Listen to my live review of Penny Plain on CBC Radio’s The Calgary Eyeopener on Monday October 24th at around 8:20 am

There is no doubt that to see Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes performance of Penny Plain is to see a spectacle. There are the exquisitely crafted and costumed puppets, the otherworldly and haunting set design and the clever lighting that either hides or exposes the puppeteer and his creatures. But most importantly there is the immense talent of the multi award-winning Burkett himself as he commands and gives voice to the play’s 33 marionettes and 2 hand puppets for the entire length of the no-intermission play.

But like any spectacle, no matter how impressive, it pays to ask if one’s enjoyment is based on the display itself or what the display is really trying to show us. In other words, are we looking at production over content or something richer? For me, watching Penny Plain was a little of both.

The story begins with a voiceover news broadcast announcing the impending end of the world due to some type of viral pandemic. Several other darkly comedic announcements follow that speak about everything from the collapse of the economy to the standoff in the middle east, indicating that life as it was is quickly coming to an end.

It’s in this atmosphere of certain doom that we meet Penny, an elderly blind woman sitting in the drawing room of her rooming house with her companion dog Geoffrey. With so little time left in the world, Geoffrey (who not only speaks English but delivers philosophical barbs) decides to leave the house to go outside and live as a man, leaving Penny companionless. Several other talking dogs try to obtain the position, but instead a recently orphaned girl named Tuppence, who pretends she’s a dog, gets the job. Meanwhile as the chaos outside escalates, the other housemates become more and more agitated and strange new refugees come into the house looking for one kind of salvation or another.

This strange, dark, disturbing and comedic story demands every ounce of Burkett’s concentration and energy. All the action is orchestrated from a bridge-like structure at the top of the stage where Burkett stands and works the impossibly long strings of his gorgeous puppets. Actually Burkett rarely stands still, instead running back and forth to pick up or put down the various characters “acting” in a scene. Often I found myself watching not only by the puppet in play, but also the puppets hanging and sometimes swinging in the background waiting for Burkett to pick them up and bring them to life again. Equally remarkable to Burkett’s physical working of his puppets, is his ability to give original voices to 35 characters so that each one has a distinct sound, personality and accent.

But even the distraction of watching such creative prowess at work did not diminish the weak spots in the content of the play, namely the comedy which was either incredibly mainstream sit-com-ish or sophomoric. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the cranky, elderly, walker-using character named Queenie who spends most of her time screaming about “poo in her pants” and “smelling poo in the house” and demanding her daughter “come wipe my ass because I can’t anymore ‘cause my nails are too long”.  An old woman shrieking about poo just isn’t funny in this context no matter how clever the puppeteering is.  In the less fecal comedic moments, characters delivered obvious punch lines or played obvious stereotypes that brought nothing interesting to the story. For me, the comedy in the performance failed at every turn and I found myself wishing that they would just cut all the “funny” bits out and instead focus on the dramatic and creepy elements as they were by far the strongest aspects of the narrative.

It was in these moments that you truly did forget the spectacle of the performance and lose yourself in the play itself.  The incredibly disturbing story of how Tuppence came to be orphaned, the heart-wrenching tale of Penny going blind, a woman desperate for a baby and instead getting something quite inhuman to love and the upsetting and violent return of Geoffrey to Penny’s home – these were the substance moments that elevated the play to something more than mere eye-candy.

There is a reason Ronnie Burkett is recognized as one of Canada’s foremost theater artists. His work is some of the most innovative and visually stimulating things you’ll ever see in the theatre. With Penny Plain, the seeing is as spectacular as ever and beyond the spectacle at times is a play with content that deserves your full attention.


For the guys – There is a reason kids are not allowed in the performance. Puppets for adults in a way that will make you think and creep you out. SEE IT

For the girls – Creepy isn’t the only thing this play has to offer. Touching and heart wrenching scenes will leave you really caring for these inanimate “actors”. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – The spectacle will wow you, but the surreal, dark and weird storyline may turn you off. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – Do you really need to see another Ronnie Burkett performance? Maybe not. But there are some very good smaller scenes in the play that will certainly stay with you. MAYBE SEE IT   

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