— Photos of Penny Plain by Trudie Lee
Early in Ronnie Burkett’s Penny Plain, the elderly, blind Ms. Plain and her dog Geoffrey sit side by side in armchairs, discussing the comparative virtues of civilized behaviour versus the habit of sniffing each other’s bums.
After Geoffrey departs, determined to experience the rapidly disintegrating world on his own, Penny drops to her knees, raises one arm, and in the subtlest of gestures slowly strokes the empty space where her beloved pet would once have lain. It’s a sweet, poignant, profoundly human moment.
And of course, it’s all done with marionettes.
Burkett’s latest brilliant theatrical concoction combines complex humanity, talking animals, comic absurdity and ecological catastrophe. Billed as “an apocalyptic gothic comedy,” Penny Plain features 33 of Burkett’s remarkable puppets brought to beautifully textured life, and given individual character, costume and voice, by him alone. His skill as a puppeteer is unmatched, but his writing and acting are equally impressive.
Standing in the dark on a raised platform above his carefully designed puppet stage, Burkett animates all the distinctive people and canines that come and go through Penny Plain’s rooming house as civilization crashes to an end around them and nature reasserts itself.
They include the horny chihuahua and slatternly poodle who interview to take Geoffrey’s place; Mr. Dollop, the gentle cross-dressing bank clerk; angry Ms. Jubilee, driven homicidal by people talking incessantly on cellphones, and by her poop-obsessed mother with her walker.
The funniest are Melvin and Barbie, outrageously loud Americans in tight camouflage leisure suits who have snuck across the border to wait out the apocalypse until Jesus personally comes for them.
A fragile young girl named Tuppence, having escaped her suicidal family, insists that she’s a dog in order to become Ms. Plain’s companion. And a young boy named Oliver, in shorts and gas mask, vows to be Tuppence’s protector.
The puppeteer character who appears in nearly all Burkett’s plays is here an elderly man in a trench coat named Geppetto Jones—the master puppeteer from Pinocchio—estranged from his red-headed son, Pino. A woman named Evie begs Geppetto to build a puppet for her who can grow to be her real human child. Watch how Burkett develops this plotline, making magic out of a pickle jar.
John Alcorn’s noisy sound design and Kevin Humphrey’s pinpoint lighting add additional dimension to Burkett’s world. But he’s its god and he’ll intervene if necessary. At one point in Thursday’s performance Evie’s head wouldn’t sit straight on her puppet shoulders. “What’s the matter with your head?” asked another character, interrupting the scene. “I don’t know,” said Evie. “It must be opening night.