Friday, 9 August 2013

Penny Plain, Ronnie Burkett, Aug 8, 2013 ****

By Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, Arts Centre Melbourne
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until Aug 18, 2013
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 8, 2013
Stars: ****

Review also published in Herald Sun online on Friday, Aug 9, 2013 and  in print on Monday Aug 12, 2013 KH

In Penny Plain, Canadian master puppeteer, Ronnie Burkett, creates an idiosyncratic performance using the traditional technique of marionettes, gloriously old-fashioned storytelling and a parade of eccentric characters.

In this grim, mysterious tale about the end of the world, blind, old Penny Plain’s boarding house becomes a refuge for those escaping the natural and man-made disasters outside.

Manipulating his creatures from a high gantry, Burkett populates the stage with dozens of impeccably crafted characters, instilling life into each and inhabiting them with love and commitment. 

The story has an underlying dark, satirical, and audacious social commentary, but it is Burkett’s impeccably observed characters – his villains and saints – that compel us.

At the heart of the tale is Penny Plain who is sympathetic, warm, fearless and gentle, but we fear for her when her blindness and frailty make her vulnerable to the self-centredness of others.

Burkett surrounds Penny with characters including her doggie-companion, Geoffrey, who leaves her to become a gentleman but is replaced by Tuppence, a pale, nervous orphan who pretends to be a dog to please Penny.

The procession of characters continues with murderous Jubilee Karloff (who kills annoyingly noisy people), her vile mother, Queenie, Mr. Dollop the cross-dressing bank teller, and a cameo from a white trash American couple.

Two comical highlights are the canine applicants for the job of companion: Kittencapoodle, the sassy French poodle, and Hickory Sanchez, a hilariously sleazy casanova chihuahua.

Burkett playfully inserts Gepetto the puppeteer, his adult son Pino/Pinocchio, and despairing
Evelyn French who pines for her own puppet baby in this bleak era.

Against a pessimistic background of global warming, earthquakes, stock market crashes and food and water shortages, these characters embody the best and the worst of human nature as it deals with crisis.

Burkett’s playful and poignant storytelling and consummate manipulation of his quirky characters compensate for a few unresolved narrative threads and some characters that seem extraneous, albeit delightful.

Penny Plain is another virtuoso production from the master marioneteer who brought us Tinka’s New Dress, Provenance and Billy Twinkle, and we can only hope to see his latest show, the Daisy Theatre.

By Kate Herbert

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