Finding Hope in Ronnie Burkett's Theatre of Marionettes
by Dawn Tracy Brandes
[For Part One, see Puppetry International #33, page 4.]

Burkett's most recent show, Penny Plain, shares elements with several of his earlier productions, including Street of Blood. As in Street of Blood, there is a gothic sense of a looming Armageddon; in Street of Blood, this struggle is played out most dramatically between Esmé and her vampire brethren on one side, and Burkett's very human Jesus on the other. In Penny Plain, the End Days are more explicit; the play begins with a series of audio snippets from news broadcasts announcing environmental, financial, and political calamity around the globe. Burkett still remains visible throughout, but unlike in Street of Blood, where Burkett's Jesus puts the puppeteer at centre stage, Penny Plain keeps Burkett mostly out of the spotlight, manipulating predominantly long strung puppets from the upper deck of the two-tiered set. While Jesus presided lovingly over the inhabitants of Turnip Corners, the puppeteer seems largely detached from the action in Penny Plain.

The entire show takes place inside the boarding house of Penny Plain, an elderly blind woman whose anthropomorphized seeing eye dog, Geoffrey, leaves her at the beginning of the show in order to "be a gentleman" in the outside world (Penny 13). Like in Street of Blood, where blood (in the form of blood ties, contaminated blood, Christ's blood, and vampires) provides the thematic link between a cast of otherwise dissimilar characters, the inhabitants of Miss Plain's boarding house are united by a shared questioning of what is natural and what is unnatural. Geoffrey the dog introduces this theme in the first scene, reminding Miss Plain that, while he engages in civilized behavior when in her company, "if another dog were to enter the room, it would not be foreign to my nature to sniff his sphincter in salutation" (10). Some characters--like serial killer Jubilee Karloff, an editor who stabs offending loud-talkers with her red pencil—give over to their base urges. Others are simply trying to resist their natural selves; for reasons that are not fully explained, teenager Tuppence claims to be a dog rather than a girl, offering her pigtails to Miss Plain as her floppy dog ears.

Like Street of Blood, the set of Penny Plain was two-tiered, with stage level representing Ms. Plain's living room and the bridges outside or upstairs. The set was constructed mostly of steel, giving the space a slightly industrial feel, and shifts of light on the wall of grimy windows upstage changed the dominant color scheme through a palette of blues, greens, reds and purples. Penny and her human companions were marionettes not unlike those of Street of Blood, while her four-legged friends—Geoffrey and the dogs who audition as his replacement—were covered in cloth fur, though they all walked upright on their hind legs. But the strings themselves broke with tradition; at 100 inches, these marionette strings allowed Burkett to be farther away from his puppets than ever before (Kaplan). Burkett, dressed in black, operated these puppets from the upper deck, never venturing into the space of Ms. Plain's living room.

Given its dark theme, it is perhaps unsurprising that Penny Plain is the most dystopian play in Burkett's oeuvre. Even the ending is ambiguous. Whereas Burkett's earlier plays tend to end on an unabashedly hopeful note—the titular character swinging higher and higher in Happy, Pity Beane skating amidst falling snow in Provenance, or even Edna's plucky closing line in Street of Blood—Penny Plain's final moments elicited gasps from the audience when I saw the show at Toronto's Factory Theatre on February 24th, 2012. Geoffrey returns to the boarding house, but, as the dog himself admits, he has "gone a bit feral, I'm afraid" (104). The published text describes him in this way: "his fur matted and torn, covered in blood. His eyes are wild and dangerous, his mouth open and lips pulled back, revealing all his teeth" (103). He tells his former companion that he plans to eat her and mate with Tuppence, and when Miss Plain exclaims in horror that that is "unnatural," he replies ominously, "Miss Plain, are you really so blind? Nature is changing" (106).

But the show doesn't quite end there. First, we see Oliver, a boy who earlier promised to protect Tuppence from the vicious dogs roaming the streets. Then, we see Evie, the woman who has been badgering Geppetto throughout the play to make her a baby, just as he constructed Pinocchio years ago. In her arms, she rocks Peekla, Geppetto's ridiculous answer to her request: a detergent bottle for a head, a ketchup bottle for a body, and utensils for limbs, his cartoonish green eyes stare up at her. Before the lights fade, Peekla begins to cry. As Robert Cushman observes, "This could be an image of horror or hope. It works either way" ("Theatre"). Oliver's appearance does seem to offer some hope for Tuppence's and Miss Plain's survival, in the short term, but Penny makes clear that their death is inevitable, and in fact is "the only way we can help the earth" (Penny 101). In this light, the image of Evie and Peekla is even less unequivocally positive. When Geppetto introduced the two, he told Evie, "I made you a puppet. Only you can make him a baby" (95). Peekla's cry at the end seems to suggest the success of this transformation; Evie's love has begun to naturalize Peekla, despite his origins. But Geppetto's insistence that Peekla is "the future we made for ourselves" (96) colors Peekla's metaphorical step towards becoming a 'real boy,' reminding us of the refuse with which he was created. Earlier in the play, it was the blades of grass and flowers that began growing in Miss Plain's living room that offered some hope, if not for the individual characters, then for the earth itself. It is difficult to guess how Peekla might fit into this new world; if he does, indeed, offer hope for the continuation of a version of the human race, its unclear how his unbiodegradeable body will impact the delicate blades of grass that seem poised to overtake Miss Plain's whole boarding house. The final image seems like a hopeful one, but it is not without its complications.

It is tempting, then, to see Penny Plain as a step away from the utopian performative model followed in Burkett's earlier productions. However, as Dolan makes clear, it is not only the content of a performance that generates the utopian performatives; in fact, "spectators might draw a utopian performative from even the most dystopian theatrical universe" (Dolan 8). While Penny Plain is not Burkett's most optimistic play, it tackles at its core the responsibility of human beings towards their world and each other in it. Although Burkett is less physically immersed in the puppet universe on stage than he was in Street of Blood,8 I want to argue that his presence is still felt by the audience and implicated in the text. By animating his puppets in plain view of the audience, Burkett's performance blurs the line between natural and unnatural (or, in this case, animate and inanimate) in the same way as his text—the audience's attention helps to bring his marionettes to "life" much in the same way that Evie's love does Peekla. And while the outcome is more ambiguous, the sense of interconnectedness between the inhabitants of Miss Plain's boarding house as they await the end of days is an important aspect of the play. By theatricalizing the connections between individuals, even in dire circumstances, Burkett's theatre unites its audience around shared empathy, as well as shared responsibility.

1. This is not to imply that Burkett does not receive help behind the scenes, including music, sound, and lighting design, dramaturgy, stage management, and a number of individuals making Burkett's designs reality in the puppet studio. For a complete list of the crew behind Street of Blood, see page 79 of the anthology String Quartet: Four Plays by Ronnie Burkett. For Penny Plain, see the published text, pages v-vi. 

2. On occasion, Burkett has relied on his stage manager to move puppets or set pieces in view of the audience. Memorably, in Street of Blood, the stage manager briefly comes onstage to set up one of the scenes, prompting the Albertan matriarch Edna Rural marionette to comment, "Local girl, comes to help out every now and then. We grow 'em big around here!" (Street 84). 

3. The vast majority of Burkett's puppets are marionettes, both long-strung (which Burkett operates from an upper level of the set) and short-strung (operated with Burkett standing on the same level as the marionettes, his legs acting as a backdrop for the puppets). Burkett sometimes includes other types of puppets in the show, including two hand puppets in Penny Plain. In this article, I will use the terms 'marionette' and 'puppet' interchangeably to reference Burkett's creations; all of the puppets in these pieces are marionettes unless otherwise noted. 

4. See Penny Francis, Puppetry: A Reader in Theory and Practice: "Until late in the twentieth century the expression of the puppeteer's face and body usually went unseen, but today the demands are more complicated. Added to the aesthetic considerations of their normal or assumed physical presence, the manipulator of the puppet or object is often required to play a role other than the puppet's, to interact with other characters (human and material) on the stage on equal terms" (92). 

5. The years listed for these productions mark their premiere performances. Street of Blood premiered at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1998 and toured internationally until being retired in 2002. Penny Plain premiered at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, and has since traveled to Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver. 

6. The word "performative" comes from the linguist J.L. Austin, and in its original context refers to a verbal phrase that itself performs an action. The words "I do" at a wedding are the typical example of this phenomenon; uttering the words seals the vow, and changes the relationship between the speaker and his or her partner. 

7. Puppeteers often pinpoint breath as a crucial element of puppet performance. See, for instance, Jane Taylor, ed. Handspring Puppet Company. New York: David Krut Publishing, 2010. 

8. There is one brief instance in this play where Burkett is slightly more in focus. When Penny Plain tells the story of how she went blind, Burkett acted this out with hand puppets on the bridge.
Works Cited

Burkett, Ronnie. Penny Plain. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2012. Print.
---. Personal interview. 23 Nov. 2006. 
---. Street of Blood. String Quartet: Four Plays by Ronnie Burkett. Toronto: Playwright's Canada Press, 2010. Print.

Cushman, Robert. "Compelling Characters with Strings Attached." The National Post.
           John Lambert and Assoc., 24 Sept. 1999. Web. 27 Jan 2012. 

Cushman, Robert. "Theatre Review: Penny Plain Does Far More Than Simply Pull            Puppet Strings." National Post. 28 Jan 2012. Web. 15 Dec 2012.

Dolan, Jill. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Print. 

Francis, Penny. Puppetry: A Reader in Theatre Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 

Kaplan, John. "Preview: Penny Plain." Now Magazine. 31.21 19-26 Jan 2012. Web. 31 Jan 2013. 

Morrow, Martin. Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit Theatre. Banff: Banff Centre Press, 2003. Print.