Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) Penny Plain

(photo credit: Trudie Lee)
The Puppet Master
Ronnie Burkett's piece gets a second opinion
by Jim Murchison
I went to see Ronnie Burkett’s brilliantly executed marionette play Penny Plain. It examines our impending Armageddon with humour and wit from a particularly Canadian perspective. The play looks at the impending apocalypse by examining Government and media spin, resource depletion, survivalism and the inevitability that all things must pass. All of this is seen through the eyes of characters peregrinating through Penny Plain’s boarding house.
This is the first time I have gone to see a play that has already been reviewed by CharPo. This creates a different challenge for me and an opportunity to do a bit of a comparative analysis. I will start where our Toronto critic, Dave Ross left off. Certainly do not pass up the opportunity to see a production from the Ronnie Burkett theatre of marionettes. It would be difficult to imagine anyone making a credible argument denying the skill and artistry involved in creating and executing such a performance. 
I often have difficulty with one person tour de force plays. Frequently there are issues with the staging. The audience can become dizzy watching an actor pacing around in circles, jabbering away at himself, or speaking to ghosts. All of these issues are eliminated when the characters are created in a wood shop and then imbued with life from hands above. In a magical way, a one man ensemble is created. 
Burkett has an expressive voice that he uses effectively, but I also agree with Ross that vocally the characters become indiscernible when the pace increases. At other points, when an ominous tone is needed, you hear the same rich baritone regardless of which character is speaking.
I do not have the same problems with the script that Ross had with the Toronto production. I have no idea what has been tweaked along the way, but the premise that the end of the world is just part of the life cycle, works for me. There are certain theatrical conventions that may seem clever to some and overused or clichéd to others. So be it. Whether the play has been fine tuned since the Toronto production, or it is just a difference of opinion really doesn’t matter. Penny Plain is wonderfully entertaining and as Peter Hinton rightly pointed out at the start of the evening, it is performed by a national treasure.
There is certainly a danger when something is conveyed with such incredible artistry, that we get swept away by it. One can become so enamoured of the technique and design that one overlooks the weaknesses. The most important thing that everyone appears to be in agreement on is, “Don’t miss it, if you can help it.” 

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