I have always had both a fascination and a fear of puppets.
I remember traveling to England with my mother as a child. On our return flight, I met a woman whose traveling companion was a ventriloquist dummy named Charlie. I was totally engrossed with Charlie for the duration of the flight and was delighted when a birthday card arrived from him later that year. (How thoughtful of Charlie's owner!)
But puppets have also scared me. To be honest, there is something a bit creepy about them. Maybe it's the fact that it is humans who choose their personalities for them. Humans create and voice them, giving them their characteristics. Historically, puppets were often used to act out morality plays, behaving in ways that would never have been acceptable for humans. For me, the obvious distinction between a puppet and a person (besides the fact that puppets aren't actually living things) is the lack of a soul. This allows for a certain psychopathic quality to be easily given to puppets by the individuals who manipulate them. The original Puppet Master film, a horror, has spawned nine sequels. Perhaps we as a society prefer to see puppets imbued with evil characteristics rather than good. Mind you, The Muppets have had a pretty good run as well, and they're pretty harmless. Also, Avenue Q, one of my favourite musicals of all time, has some of the sweetest puppet characters ever written. (By the way, Avenue Q is currently playing until February 5th at The Lower Ossington Theatre in Toronto.)
Putting my opinions (and fear) of puppets aside, I must say that Ronnie Burkett is nothing less than a creative genius. Burkett single-handedly (actually double-handedly) performs the entire 2 hours of his new production, Penny Plain, during which he not only manipulates a dozen or so marionettes but also embodies each one with a distinctive voice and character. The man definitely deserves some sort of award for this show. Burkett is highly skilled not only as a puppeteer but also as an actor. During the few brief moments when I remembered that the characters were not real, I glanced up at Burkett acting his heart out in the sky above them. He seemed physically and emotionally exhausted during the curtain call, where he recieved a well-deserved standing ovation at Sunday's matinee performance.
Penny Plain follows the lives of an elderly woman (Penny) and the lodgers in her boarding house in the days leading up to the end of civilization as we know it. The characters in Penny Plain are not your average rooming house gang. (Or are they?) They include a homicidal female editor and her incontinent mother, a cross dressing male bank teller and a young orphan girl who pretends to be a dog, among others. It's difficult to say whether these characters would work if played by human actors. Perhaps because they are puppets, we are able to accept things about these characters that we wouldn't if they were played by humans. The homicidal editor that hates her mother is occasionally quite humorous, as are the evangelical American couple who see no shame in eating dogs to survive.
Full of grim predictions of economic, viral and natural disasters, Penny Plain's plot unfortunately doesn't leave us with much hope. What is hopeful is that most of Ronnie Burkett's puppets, though not all, seem to have that sometimes missing element... a soul.
Penny Plain runs at the Factory Theatre until Febuary 26. Tickets online at factorytheatre.ca or by phone at (416) 504-9971.