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Jeffrey and Penny Plain  Photo: Trudie Lee
Jeffrey and Penny Plain Photo: Trudie Lee

Theatre Review: "Penny Plain" at the National Arts Centre

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"Penny Plain" is running at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa through April 1. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has this review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

Trying to describe Ronnie Burkett and his Theatre of Marionettes production PENNY PLAIN is hopeless. It’s like trying to describe Cirque du Soliel. You just have to see it. Mr. Burkett wrote the script, designed and carved the marionettes, designed the set and costumes, voices the characters and performs the hour and forty-minute solo piece without intermission.

PENNY PLAIN tells the story of blind Penny waiting in her boardinghouse with her canine companion Jeffrey for the end of the world. It’s a wonderful blend of comedy and serious ideas. As Mr. Burkett describes it, “Part gothic thriller, part apocalyptic drawing room comedy, PENNY PLAIN shows the funny and chilling consequences as mother earth cleans house and reclaims her ground.”

The characters cover a broad spectrum from Tuppence, a young girl who becomes Penny’s new companion/dog through Geppetto and a grown-up Pinocchio to Hickory Sanchez, an aggressive Chihuahua lover, to name just a few. I found the story of how Penny becomes blind, told with hand puppets, powerful and almost unbearably moving.

The set features a lower level for the action with a level above where Mr. Burkett works in shadow. The back and sides are framed squares of translucent material providing a perfect canvas for Kevin Humphrey’s sensitive lighting. The flowers on the stage grow subtly throughout and the final scene is framed by garden panels.  The whole is accompanied by terrific music by John Alcorn, who’s also responsible for the excellent sound.

The energy and concentration of Mr. Burkett’s performance are remarkable. The script is interesting and moves fluidly from seriousness to humor. My only quibble, and it’s a small one, is that perhaps there are too many complex ideas, not a bad problem to have. I should mention that the material is not suitable for children under 14.

It’s difficult to convey the impact of this unusual production.  It produces in the audience an electric silence of intense concentration.  All I can say is if you have an opportunity to get to Ottawa this month don’t miss it.  PENNY PLAIN is sheer creative magic and Ronnie Burkett is unique.

On a scale of one to five the NAC presentation of PENNY PLAIN, the 25th Anniversary production of the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, gets five Royal Canadian Mounted Police, complete with bugler.

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