Reviewed by James Karas
Ronnie Burkett is one of those extraordinarily talented people that you watch with total admiration. He is a puppeteer, a writer, an actor and a creator of outstanding puppet shows. His talents are currently on display at the Factory Theatre in Penny Plain, a show that he has created and performs.
A puppeteer needs, as a basic minimum, manual dexterity to manipulate all the puppets and Burkett possesses that in abundance. He has a dozen characters (I am guessing) in Penny Plain and they all have to be handled with finesse. No problem here.
Along with the manipulation of body and limbs of the puppets, Burkett has to provide his characters with voices and individual characterization be it an old woman, a dog or dogs, children and an assortment of others. Needless to say Burkett provides the vocals for all of them. This is a one-man show that feels like a production by a National Theatre company.
Burkett is always visible on stage, standing on a platform just above the playing area of the puppets. The lighting focuses on the puppets, of course, and we almost forget his presence we are so engrossed in the actions of the characters.
Penny Plain is an old, blind woman who is sitting in an easy chair talking with her dog Geoffrey who thinks he is human and does not want to be treated like a dog. On the news we hear that the end of the world is upon us and the faithful dog leaves Penny Plain.
Penny starts looking for a replacement for Geoffrey and is visited by a large number of eccentric people and animals. We meet murderers, and survivalists, and a woman who cannot bear children and wants a puppet so she can transform it into a child through love. In her search for a replacement for Geoffrey, Penny Plain chooses Tuppance, a young girl who pretends to be a dog.
Any notion that a puppet show is an extended and simple comedy routine should be discarded immediately. True there is humour in Burkett’s work but it is dark humour and there is great depth and disturbing thought contained in it. He examines the classic question of the relationship of the puppet to the puppet maker. Fascinatingly, the childless woman approaches the creator of Pinocchio, surely the archetypal puppet maker, and asks him to make a puppet/child for her.
The play is in turn ironic, humorous, dramatic and in the end provides a fascinating night at the theatre.
Penny Plain by Ronnie Burkett opened on January 20 and will run until February 26, 2012 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.factorytheatre.ca.