The Stage

Faint praise for Penny Plain
Housebound apocalypse less than the sum of its parts
By Geoffrey Dow, Managing Editor
True North Perspective
Originally published at Edifice Rex Online
Ronnie Burkett, with marionettes, photo by Trudie Lee, National Arts Centre.

23 March 2012 — Let's get the obvious out of the way: Ronnie Burkett is a master craftsman and any Ronnie Burkett play will be a visual feast and a virtuoso performance of old-fashioned puppetry.

Penny Plain is no exception. The play's marionettes are beautiful objects and Burkett — the solo performer, literally pulling the strings — gives voice as well as life to his singular creations.

In Ronnie Burkett's hands, each marionette is a living performer, working in willing collaboration with the audience.

All of which means that, if the craft is to be more than spectacle, the performance and — especially — the writing, must be every bit as good as the performance.

Ronnie Burkett can act. But does Penny Plain's script do justice to the wonders of its production?

The short answer is, Not quite.

Penny Plain is the fourth of Burkett's seven plays I have seen and it was a little disconcerting to realize that, until I reviewed his CV, I had thought it was the third. The one that lives on most strongly in mind is Happy, which I saw in 2001; the most recent, 10 Days on Earth barely registers. Even with prompting, I can only acknowledge that Yes, I saw it. I recognize the poster.

Yet my far-off memories of Happy are so strong that I have been calling the man a national treasure ever since, and have (forgive me the pun) happily payed for tickets ever since.

But obviously, the man's work is not flawless.




Penny Plain is set in a (very) near future and takes place in the titular character's rooming house, a fragile refuge from a slow-moving apocalypse.

The play opens with a series news clips, voices in the dark telling of a plague that has killed tens of millions, of the world's financial systems shutting down, of water and power shortages, of a government advising citizens to stay in their homes.

The end (as they say) is nigh.

As the lights come up and the voice-overs fade, we see two arm chairs, in one of which sits Penny Plain herself. In the other, Geoffrey, her canine companion animal, somehow bipedal and gifted with the power of speech. This is not science fiction, but fantasy; or maybe, allegory unconcerned with the limitations of genre.

In any case, Geoffrey's response to the crisis is a desire to venture out into the world to become a man — or rather, a "gentleman". He remains dog enough to ensure a pool of applicants to fill his position as companion to the blind Penny, but he does leave and his absence is what sets the story — such as it is — in motion. I won't bore or spoil you with a synopsis but in truth there isn't much plot to spoil, which speaks to some of why this play is less than fully satisfying.

As usual with Burkett's work, the cast of Penny Plain is large and diverse and, often, quirky to the point of caricature (the grotesque American refugees, the Tittys: fat-Elvis Mel and his pneumatic, near-menopausal Barbie, go quite a ways beyond that point).

Unfortunately, but for Penny herself and, to a lesser extent, Geoffrey's replacement Tuppence, the other characters are either cyphers or caricatures.

Just as we do not know how it is that Geoffrey can speak, we don't know (or much care) why it is he suddenly wants to leave. Similarly, the old woman with the walker, bitter and obsessed with shit, is only a bitter old woman obsessed with shit; her murderous daughter is only a murderous daughter; and the timid, ultimately cross-dressing bank-teller too is only a surface whose inner nature is never revealed.

The only exception is Tuppence, a little girl escaped from a family of suicidal Christians bent on hurrying to the arms of Jesus. Her insistence that she is a dog, to please Penny (who is not fooled for a moment) is sweetly naive, as her her no-doubt doomed love affair with the mysterious "Monster" (a gas-mask wearing boy who sure reminded me of a famous Doctor Who story) is touching.

Penny Plain herself, hysterically blind since the age of 11, is an old woman in retreat from the world, yet one who has allowed much of the world (and its ills) to follow her into her porous refuge.

You can tell from that description that she too is more message than person.

With no character but Tuppence approaching three-dimensional life, Burkett's episodic narrative fails to coalesce. In fact, it's difficult to talk about the story at all; there isn't much there there. Instead, Penny Plain is a series of loosely-connected black-comic vignettes illustrating ideas rather than showing character or telling a story.

Burkett's remarkable marionettes and his powerful performances, with his undeniable ear for dialogue and comic pacing, keep us watching but after the fact, there is not much to hold on to.

Penny Plain is a big idea that has overwhelmed its story. Burkett's tale is a melange of science fiction, allegory and cautionary fable, a confection squirming awkwardly within the confines of a one-set situation comedy. It is a play that is often amusing, sometimes even moving, but ultimately a whole that is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

If you haven't seen one of Burkett's previous shows, by all means go and see Penny Plain; even a lesser Burkett production is an experience worth having. But don't expect much more than a remarkable demonstration of technical accomplishment.

Penny Plain continues at Ottawa's National Arts Centre until April 1, 2012. Ticket see to still be available at NAC's website. The show will be moving to Montreal's Place des arts in April.

Penny Plain's post-performance set. Photo by the Phantom Photographer.
Penny Plain's post-performance set. Photo by the Phantom Photographer.

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