World Stages: International Theater Festival -‘Penny Plain’ at The Kennedy Center

World Stages: International Theater Festival takes the center stage at The Kennedy Center, March 10-30, 2014 bringing together some of today’s most exciting theatrical visionaries presenting an unprecedented focus on theatre from around the globe. Twenty-two theatrical offerings from nineteen countries, and every continent except Antarctica, are represented in this theater Festival of dynamic stories examining contemporary issues and universal themes. Curated by Alicia Adams, Vice President, International Programming, thirteen fully staged productions will be featured including nine U.S. premieres, as well as four theater-focused installations, panel discussions, two staged readings, and two Directors forums.

The delights in this extraordinary assembling of theatrical treasures comprise World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014 – The Kennedy Center’s first theater-focused international festival!

Living Life, Strings Attached – Review: Penny Plain

Characters from 'Penny Plain.' Photo by Trudie Lee of Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Characters from Penny Plain
Characters from ‘Penny Plain.’ Photo by Trudie Lee of Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes.

The graceful, stunningly realistic looking puppets of the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes display the many strange and wonderful characters to be found in the bizarre and rich apocalyptic world of Penny Plain. There are talking dogs (including a Latin lover Chihuahua),  the serial killer who murders victims with red editor pencils, an Elvis and buxom Barbie -inspired dressing Fundamentalist couple, a cross-dressing banker, and a desperate woman who longs for a baby, even if it’s a puppet-made baby with a detergent bottle for a head.

So it’s little surprise that for the blind elderly title character of this production, Penny Plain may be eccentric but, she is a woman who is anything but ordinary.

As one of the two puppetry shows at this year’s Kennedy Center’s World Stage: International Theatre Festival, Penny Plain is an amazingly unbelievable evening of subversive puppet theatre. The cautionary tale follows an old boarding house owner (Penny Plain) and her end of the world date with destiny in a multistory presentation that is a gothic, prophetic thriller, and part revisionist Disney classic. The mastery performed and created by Ronnie Burkett, this one-man puppet extraordinaire has been the sleeper surprise of the Festival for me.

Never before have I seen such a cutting edge, epic telling of a multi-storyline puppet show with characters so realistically portrayed, and with emotional dialogue and situations that are so authentic yet surreal. I was constantly blown away, and the biggest surprise, is that it really is puppet theatre for adults. (Thank you. More please.)

The attached strings are quickly forgotten, and the infusion of life at the end of those Marionette strings is a talent and skill that have set a bench mark for any other puppetry I will ever see.

Ronnie Burkett (Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes was formed in 1986.) wrote the script and designed all of the puppets, and is recognized as one of Canada’s foremost theater artists. Singlehandedly, Burkett voices and finesses the brilliant theatre artistry of 15 marionettes (plus two hand puppets) in Penny Plain. Hovering above, he remains dimly visible above the drama, as he goes back in forth from one puppet to the next. The orchestration of his elaborate and provocative puppetry is detailed and nuanced with the animated wooden Marionettes’ expressive body language, right down to the distinct walking styles of the different characters.  The transitions are seemless.

Penny Plain truly is lovely and amazing.

Imagine the two-tier framing of an oversized doll house on a theatre stage. The action takes place on the open concept set design (also by Ronnie Burkett) as the interior of the Penny Plain’s home, and that is backed by a frosted stained glass panel of cube tiles drenched in the filtered purple and green hues of Kevin Humphrey dramatic lighting design. In the center is a glass tree connecting the two levels – perhaps representing the tree of life – and serving as a reminder to all the importance of the environment and the natural world.

The upbeat tempo of John Alcorn haunting musical composition and sound design opens the presentation. The audience then is immediately faced with the voice-over news reports of panic with the Stock Exchange, a virus claiming millions of lives, climate change and the collapse of countries, and the world as we know it – no more.

Listening to the dire news headlines of the chaos and decline of civilization’s inevitable end, Penny Plain sits in her overstuffed chair next to her best pal, Geoffrey, her dog and constant companion since childhood.  One day, her end of the world vigil is slammed when the talking Geoffrey declares his independence because he wants to live as a man – a gentleman. Before he leaves, the loyal dog arranges interviews for Penny as suitable replacements.

What happens next is an entertaining onslaught of “survivors” and those just wanting to find their special place in life, or a moment of happiness before the world comes to an end. The complexity of the plot line is not one you would expect from a puppet show. The intriguing story development seems to be one thing at first glance, then expands into a subtle but cleverly shared advocacy that heightens the viewers awareness of humanity and environmental concerns. Infused with dark humor, it’s also very funny.

As good as Penny Plain is (running just at the 100 minute mark), shaving off twenty minutes or so wouldn’t hurt the overall stories being told, in my opinion. I have to admit, that it was just over an hour when I began to wonder how is this going to end. (Read: When is this going to end?)  It’s an intense ride, but it’s a one of a kind fascinating journey I’m sincerely glad I had the opportunity to experience. When the show was over, I heard a collective sigh -“whew”- from the captivated audience.

Characters from 'Penny Plain.' Photo by Trudie Lee of Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes.
Ronnie Burkett and Penny Plain.  Photo by Trudie Lee of Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes.

As Mother Earth claims her ground, Penny Plain is a comedic but a poignant message about how people act in desperate times and the chilling consequences of mistreating the world we in which we live.  In other words, love the one you’re with, and if you don’t take care of it – it will take care of you.

In English. Recommended for ages 14 and up.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Penny Plain played March 20 – 22 at 7:30pm in the Terrace Theatre at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

The closest metro station is Foggy Bottom/George Washington Univ. There is a FREE Kennedy Center Shuttle that departs from the metro station every 15 minutes from 9:45 a.m.-Midnight Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-Midnight Saturdays, and noon-Midnight Sundays.


Read Sydney-Chanele Dawkins’ other reviews here of shows in the World Stages: International Theater Festival:The Suit. 
Tapioca Inn: Incendios.
Death & the Maiden (La Muerte y La Doncella). 
Savannah Bay.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Penny Plain.

World Stages Festival YouTube channel

Previous article‘Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad’ at The American Century Theater
Next article‘West Side Story’ at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here