The world is dying of a horrible virus, and nature is taking back what’s rightfully hers. There’s no food, no running water and communication with the outside world has been cut off. There are even reports that people are turning to cannibalism to stay alive.
So…what’s the plan?
If Ronnie Burkett’s Penny Plain is to be believed, the answer is: not a whole heck of a lot.
This isn’t the zombie apocalypse of comic and cinema lore, where a ragtag, scrappy band of humans fights for their survival and wins back the planet for all of humanity. This is the end of the world. And it’s very, very dark.
But then, there are puppets, and the queer whimsy of Penny Plain.
The show is a magnificent tapestry of marionettes, masterfully voiced and maneuvered by the aforementioned Burkett. The play – or puppet show, as it were – is a part of World Stages, the Kennedy Center’s yearly International Theater Festival, (Burkett, it’s worth mentioning is Canadian). The festival boasts 22 theatrical offerings from 19 countries, and if Penny Plain is any indication of the festival’s quality overall…it’s time to clear the calendar and take out your wallet.
The show is set in a quiet hollow on the outskirts of apocolyptia (the exact location is unknown). A sharp techno beat and a slowly dimming light bring the audience into the first scene, where we’re introduced to Penny Plain, a blind and elderly woman, and Jeffrey, a canine companion longing to join the ranks of man.
Penny and Jeffrey get along famously, spending their days in armchairs listening to the news and watching the world descend into chaos. But Jeffrey longs for more, and eventually leaves Penny’s service in search of life among the human race.
In his stead, a stream of replacements come courting Penny Plain for the boarding house she has to offer. A young girl posing as a dog wins out, and along with a lonely boy mistaken for a monster, a cross-dressing banker, a redneck couple, a schizophrenic older woman and her less-than-adjusted son, the house is reborn.
Penny Plain is ever so slightly political, with just a touch of anti-consumerism, environmentalism and class warfare. But most of these elements serve as a backdrop to the more human, deeply touching moments that define the work.
The play is morbidly laugh-out-loud funny, in a way that makes you look around, embarrassed, with every outburst. Burkett’s work is also whimsical and beautiful, without pretension or misgivings.
Moreover, the puppetry is entirely stunning. Though it’s cliché to say so, the puppets come to life in Burkett’s able hands. And it’s important to note that this is a one-man show. Burkett not only performs the puppetry for his characters, but voices them as well. The result is life-like and mesmerizing.
Closes March 22, 2014
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
Friday and Saturday
Details and Tickets
Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t a perfect art. Performing an entire puppet show alone, complete with varied characters and story arcs, is no simple feat. There are moments that feel rushed and manic, as the tempo and tenor of one character bleeds into the portrayal of characters that are neither of those things.
But complaining about the performance is like someone who can’t swim complaining about the splash from an Olympic diver. What Burkett offers is extraordinary, and I sure as hell couldn’t do it. So his standing ovation was well deserved.
Plain Penny gives the whole spectrum. There are moments both touching and grisly. Burkett’s sense of joy and childhood whimsy will remind you of that one high school teacher we all had who taught us to believe everything – even the ugly things – are beautiful and magical and right. These moments are poignant and touching, and they’re dusted purposefully throughout the play.
But there are moments of darkness as well. And Burkett has no compunctions about leaving you wondering how his characters fare in the end. (To that end – don’t bring your kids. This show is recommended for ages 14 and older).
This is a world where everything – everything – is patently terrible. Humanity is lost and there’s no grand hero to save us. There are monsters and crazy people and individuals who have simply given up all hope (a Disney standard among them). All that remains are the little gestures that remind us of what humanity really is before it flickers out forever.
And – despite the fact that we’re watching wooden carvings dance for our amusement – Burkett manages to portray those little moments so very well
There is a wry and honest humanity to Penny Plain. The work is rich with symbolism and metaphor, but mostly offers a glimpse into the behavior of man when the walls are crumbling down around us – good, bad and ugly.
If puppets are your thing – great. Get to it. Penny Plain is best in show.
If not, look past the strings and the blank stares of our protagonists. Penny Plain is candidly brilliant. So don’t miss it.
Penny Royal written and performed by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes at The Kennedy Center as part of the World Stages Festival at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.
The World Stages International Festival continues at The Kennedy Center through March 30, 2014. Details and tickets.
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