When the terms ‘political satire’ and ‘the end of the world’ are mentioned, traditional marionette theatre is probably not what springs to mind. Slightly creepy as they may appear, marionettes are generally not associated with adult themes at all, and one could be forgiven for classing them as children’s entertainment. But how wrong one would be.
The Arts Centre here in Melbourne was lucky enough this month to welcome internationally renowned Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett and his travelling marionette show Penny Plain. A uniquely impressive feat of storytelling, Penny Plain is an apocalyptic black comedy that strikes a delightful balance between austerity, pathos and humour.
The story takes place within a boarding house, where a blind old woman called Penny Plain is sitting in her armchair beside her beloved canine companion Geoffrey, casually listening to a radio broadcast about the dystopian society outside her doorstep. Mother Nature has begun reclaiming the earth from mankind, and chaos reigns. As the indoor set visibly transforms into a garden throughout the show, the audience learns of the fate of civilisation via intermittent pre-recorded snippets of news. Amid rising sea levels and widespread pandemic, governments are taking extreme measures to save humanity from nature. It’s a man-eat-dog, dog-eat-man world out there, literally.
When Geoffrey decides to leave and take his chances living out his final days as a man, Penny, heartbroken but understanding, begins holding interviews to find a replacement seeing-eye dog. Meanwhile, the bizarre cavalcade of personalities surrounding her, all seeking refuge and consolation, play out their own lives in various dizzying subplots. This sample of humanity ranges from a cross-dressing banker to a rambunctious cameo from an American white-trash couple, to an editor-cum-serial-killer and her hysterical walking-frame-bound mother, to Tuppence, a gutsy little girl who pretends to be a dog, to a series of actual dogs including a sleazy Chihuahua called Hickory Sanchez and a sassy French poodle called Kittencapoodle. There’s even a place for a cheeky meta-tale about the quintessential fairy tale puppeteer Gepetto and his son Pinocchio (who just goes by Pino these days).
As the sinister story unfolds, the audience begins to grasp the devastating irony of it all.
Hidden in plain sight on a gantry probably two metres off the stage floor, Burkett, who has nearly 30 years of experience in puppetry, does so much more than simply make dolls wiggle. Despite his physical distance from the marionettes, which are barely more than 40 centimetres tall, he demonstrates astounding control over their strings. Expressive posturing and subtle hand gestures humanise the little wooden figures, and between this and impeccable vocal work, each puppet very much comes to life with its own personality.
What makes the show all the more remarkable is the fact that for its hour-and-three-quarter duration, most of which is fast-paced repartee, Burkett performs the voices of the entire cast himself. Devoting an immense amount of energy and focus to his art, he cavorts fluently between nearly two-dozen utterly outlandish characters, almost sacrificing oxygen for flawless timing.
The puppeteer is also responsible for designing and building the marionettes, costumes and set, as well as conceiving, writing and developing the script, all over a period of several years. Considering the amount of effort that has gone into the production, it is little wonder that Burkett requests that his host venue prohibits re-entry if a patron were to step out to the bathroom. It would be a downright shame for performer and audience alike to lose track of the mesmeric story, rife with mayhem and tenderness, for even a second.