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Ronnie Burkett's Theatre of Marionettes explores the Apocalypse in Penny Plain

Penny Plain sits in her chair accepting visitors and waiting for the world to end.

What kind of person wears all the hats in performance creation: writes, directs, designs, builds and plays all the characters in a show? An extremely talented, creative master marionette artist Ronnie Burkett, that’s who.

Burkett’s Penny Plain opens on November 17 and runs till Dec 17 at the Historic Theatre at the Cultch with post-show talk backs on November 18 and 22. If past shows are any indication, Penny Plain will be a must see show.

Burkett’s mastery of puppetry is equal to his storytelling, ensuring a magical and evocative evening.

Chatting with Burkett from his hotel room in Calgary, the charming award winner explained the process of his soup-to-nuts creation.

“It starts when I’m on tour with another show, the native Albertan and transplanted Torontonian shared. “ I come back to my hotel room and late at night, I do what I call doodle writing, writing down a few disjointed ideas. I stay there for a while. This can go on for a year until I reach the point where I have an opening image and closing image.”

The genesis of Penny Plain came after Burkett watched a program with Dr. David Suzuki. He explained, “ …and I’m paraphrasing here: someone asked him, ‘ With all this happening to our world, how will it survive? He replied with, 'Oh the world will survive, but we will not.’ It got me thinking about the end of civilization."

“The global pandemic, the end of oil, extreme weather; that was the premise. And then I needed a little place to put that big idea.That little place was a rooming house where everything is happening outside. In the style of Arsenic and Old Lace or You Can’t Take it With You, drawing room comedies."

Penny Plain, a metaphor for Mother Earth, is an elderly, blind woman who decides to sit in her overstuffed chair waiting for the world to end. When her companion dog leaves to live as a man, her vigil is interrupted by survivalists, a serial killer, a cross-dressing banker and other mysterious strangers seeking sanctuary.

Penny Plain’s metamorphosis  took a year from August 2010 to August 2011.” I work seven days a week building puppets, doing script development, designing and building the model for the set.”

When you see his puppets, you realize that Burkett’s awards – a regional Emmy Award, the President's Award from the Puppeteers of America, the Herbert Whittaker Drama Bench Award for Outstanding contribution to Canadian Theatre, the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre for design, a Village Voice OBIE Award for Off-Braodway Theatre -- are well deserved.

The heads are articulated with such detail that the words they speak, reflect  the emotions in their hearts. Their bodies, whether old, young, human or animal show the approximately 40 years that Burkett has been mastering his craft.

“I draw out (the puppets) to full size so that the front, back, side, and every joint is on paper. When anyone asks a question, I just say, ‘Go to the map.’”

With 35 puppets in the show, there’s no way he can build every one by himself. “For the first month, there is one other person in the studio, then it builds to two or three until in the last six weeks there are four or five people carving, jointing, or making shoes. I have worked with the same woman for 22 years on costumes.”

As he creates the voices to all the characters, he, and only he, builds the heads.

“I used to have a rule, that if I didn’t find the voice as I was building the head, I would start again. It’s a marriage of instrument, text and performance.”

On previous shows, Burkett has used shorter strings on the marionettes so he was present in the work: the characters would sit on his lap and he was seen as the manipulator of the characters. Penny Plain is different and more difficult.

Burkett explained, “It has to be a really connected manipulation as there is 100 inches of string between the floor and the control. It has an elegant elasticity, a call and response,  between the puppet and the performer like a musician plucking a stringed instrument.”

His work is always thought provoking as the themes are relevant to the audience.

 “I have to take the audience to fantastical worlds like a talking dog that goes off to become a man, so it has to be based on truth,” suggested Burkett. “The audience is way smarter than I am.”

Burkett’s modesty is admirable but he is no dullard in the smarts department. Says the Edmonton Journal’s Liz Nichols after the premier of Penny Plain at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton:  “It’s a profoundly eerie, strange and strangely beautiful, experience; theatre at its most startling, moment to moment.”

Tickets on sale through The Cultch’s Box Office:

604-251-1363 or tickets.thecultch.com.

Latecomers will not be admitted. This production is intended for adult audiences only, ages 14+. Children under the age of 14 will not be admitted.

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