(photo credit: Trudie Lee)
Penny Plain reconfirms Ronnie Burkett's genius, but...
by Dave Ross
Ronnie Burkett’s Penny Plain, now running at the Factory Theatre, has received glowing reviews, as has much of Burkett’s earlier work. A play performed by one man, rendered only in puppets, is such a unique opportunity. However, the plot of the play, revolving around the characters in the boarding house of Penny Plain, leaves much to be desired, almost leaving me with the feeling the story was haphazardly assembled to showcase the puppets, rather than tell a tale.
Penny’s home slowly converts into a garden, but seemingly only so a puppet can point out how nature is changing.
The play is billed as a comedy, and it certainly delivers in that department. It is liberally peppered with humour, from references to “The Minister of Remaining Resources” (there is an apocalypse happening outside, after all), to the many jokes made possible by a trio of talking dogs. Of these, the chihuahua steals the show, and really lets Burkett show off his voice talents to an extent that isn’t seen otherwise in the play. However, even this humour seems somewhat contrived, playing on the cliché of the Taco Bell chihuahua. Indeed, cliché adequately sums up the show. We have Eve(lyn), who is welcomed to “The Garden” and learns to love through the wisdom of an old man, who happens to be a puppeteer. Penny’s home slowly converts into a garden, but seemingly only so a puppet can point out how nature is changing. There are puppets that simply disappear after a time never to be seen again—a murder takes place in the living room of the boarding house, and one of the residents is killed. The murder is never discovered, never referred to; the characters are simply wiped from the story once the murder has occurred. While no story can tie up every thread, this was one glaring omission that should have been caught. The story also feels rushed and imprecisely delivered, with many of the lines delivered in a hurry and Burkett’s different character voices becoming indistinguishable from each other.
The production does have areas that shine. Burkett is an expert puppeteer, and his puppets are masterfully designed and capable of the most subtle movements, from a flick of the wrist to a nod of the head. Their movements are astonishingly natural, and delivered flawlessly. The set design (also by Burkett) is ingenious, allowing the puppeteer to be part of the action without intruding upon it. The music, designed by Burkett’s long-time partner John Alcorn, is well-suited to the tone of the production.
Overall, the opportunity to see a production from the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes is one that should not be passed up–it takes great skill to create these puppets, imbue each of them with life, and render those characters. However, the strength of this production lies in its production design and artistry, not in the story itself.