Which is the strangest figure in “Penny Plain,” the profound and haunting black-comic vision coaxed spectacularly into three dimensions by the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes? Is it the serial killer who kills his victims with red editor’s pencils? The obnoxious talking poodle who seems to have had a career as a hooker? The cross-dressing banker? The wailing baby with a detergent bottle for a head?
Perhaps, all things considered, it’s the title character, a blind, elderly boarding-house owner given to offering cookies to visitors. Penny’s mostly unruffled demeanor qualifies as eccentricity, given the ecological and geopolitical cataclysm she is living through. These are the End Times: Climate change and a related mutating virus are decimating mankind, provoking the failure of the grid; the collapse of global finance; rampages by looters and survivalists; and attacks by preternaturally aggressive kangaroos.
But impending apocalypse makes people cling more tightly to their foibles — or so suggests “Penny Plain,” running through Saturday as part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages festival. Burkett, an acclaimed Canadian puppet-theater artist, created the piece, and he performs it solo, on a two-tiered set hung with tiny lamps and backed by frosted glass panels. Connecting the two levels is a glass cutout resembling a tree — a reminder of the natural world that Penny’s contemporaries and predecessors have ravaged. (Kevin Humphrey designed the dramatic lighting, which sometimes infuses the glass surfaces with pastoral greens, angry-sunset oranges and other colors. John Alcorn composed the eerie music and contributed the sound design.)
During most of the show — which runs a little under two hours, and is recommended for those 14 and older — the upper tier is dark, but you can dimly discern the black-clad Burkett, moving about and manipulating the marionette strings. On the lower level, gray-haired Penny and her visitors and boarders (including a dyspeptic gentleman who turns out to be Geppetto, of “Pinocchio” fame) natter, banter, feud and exchange rumors. Periodically, ominous TV-news-style voiceovers report on the global crisis, whose developments are almost comically dire.
Welcome bits of quirky humor, and even farce, sometimes lighten the atmosphere, while touchingly hinting at individuals’ resilience, or wilful blindness, in the face of disaster. Penny’s conversation with a vain, macho-talking Chihuahua is particularly funny, as is the appearance of two self-satisfied, wildly amorous Christian fundamentalists who show up in camouflage jumpsuits.
But the riveting and uncannily animated marionettes create moments of aching pathos, too. After Penny’s companion dog, Geoffrey, abandons her to pursue life as an umbrella-toting biped, the elderly lady caresses the air as if she could feel her old pet’s fur, and then sinks to her knees under the weight of her loss, her housedress billowing around her. (Later, the poodle and Chihuahua interview with Penny as possible replacements for Geoffrey.)
Oddball though they are, the characters in “Penny Plain” have a mythic intensity that reflects and illuminates the core of Burkett’s chilling environmental cautionary tale. The broken trust between Penny and Geoffrey and the freakish rapport between the plastic baby and his unnerved mother seem to mirror modern civilization’s betrayal of nature.
But “Penny Plain” is not all macabre: As the play goes on, flowers and vines begin to take over Penny’s house, suggesting that, if the human race expires, the wounded earth may recover and survive.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Created and performed by Ronnie Burkett; stage-managed by Crystal Salverda. In English. About two hours. Tickets: $29. Ends Saturday in the Terrace Theater at the John. F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
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