by Lynn on January 30, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

Friday, January 27, 2012 CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM CIUT. PENNY PLAIN at the Factory Theatre Mainspace. CRUEL AND TENDER at the Bluma Appel Theatre.

1) Good Friday morning. It’s time for a little theatre talk and Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer is here to tell us what she’s been up to, theatre wise.

Hi Lynn. What are you going to entertain us with today?

I’ve seen a lot of shows this week, and will speak about two of them because in their own way they have a lot in common.

PENNY PLAIN created and performed by Ronnie Burkett.

And CRUEL AND TENDER written by Martin Crimp and directed by Atom Egoyan.

2) What’s common about them?

Both involve heavy hitters; Ronnie Burkett with PENNY PLAIN; and Atom Egoyan with CRUEL AND TENDER.

Ronnie Burkett is a masterful marionette artist. All of his shows use marionettes to tell the stories.

Atom Egoyan is of course the celebrated film director and screenwriter.

Both plays deal with serious, subjects such as war, cruelty, a world in chaos and innocent people caught up in the swirl.

3) Ok, let’s get specific. Let’s start with PENNY PLAIN. What’s it about?

PENNY PLAIN is created and performed by Ronnie Burkett.

In it Burkett, gifted marionette artist, creates a world gone mad. Disease has ravaged populations world-wide. Global economies are destroyed. The atmosphere is compromised.

A dog wants to be a gentleman and a young girl wants to be a dog.

This upside down world is seen and commented on by a wise old woman named Penny Plain, who is blind.

It sounds like a cliché, the blind person who really has insight into what’s going on….but it’s not a cliché here.

Penny Plain runs a boarding house in which various characters either live or visit.

All hell is raging outside, but inside seems quiet and peaceful, with the occasional disruption and even that changes over time.

The dog who wants to be a gentleman is her pet Geoffrey. There they are like an old familiar couple, each sitting in their own comfy chair discussing the news of the day, eating buscuits.

But Geoffrey has a longing to leave the comforts of the rooming house, and become a gentleman and be civilized in the outside world.

4) And CRUEL AND TENDER, tells us about that.

CRUEL AND TENDER is written by celebrated British playwright Martin Crimp. He has written a lot of original plays and translated many others.

It uses Sophocles’s story about a dutiful wife who finds out that her celebrated soldier husband has ravaged a whole city in order to capture a young woman and bring her home as his lover. No thought to his dutiful wife here.

The wife gets what she thinks is a love potion and sends it to her husband in the field to win him back, but it turns out to be poison. Her husband is none too pleased at that as he writhes in pain.

In Crimp’s adaptation, we are in the modern war torn modern world. As the wife, Amelia, says of her husband, he’s gone off to fight terrorism and has become a terrorist himself.

He’s now a General fighting in Africa. She’s at home in the outskirts of some city, patiently waiting his return. She lives in a huge white mansion that can look like a bunker. There are servants.

The General sends the spoils of war to his house: a chandelier and the young woman he wants and her brother. The ‘war’ at home for Amelia and the General’s mistress is pretty fraught.

I know where the cruelty is in the play. But where’s the tenderness?

Martin Crimp’s script seems more esoteric than evocative. I like Crimp’s work on the whole, but CRUEL AND TENDER left me cold. I found it cold and tedious.

War is horrible—so? Other plays have done a better job of showing that—PENNY PLAIN for example.

5) Both are such different productions, one with puppets and one with humans. How did they do?


PENNY PLAIN is astonishing.

It’s a given that Burkett’s artistry with his marionettes is second to none. He creates the shows—he writes the script, creates the marionettes and the set, and he manipulates the puppets giving voice to all of them.

We see him scurrying from one part of the set to the other as he goes from puppet to puppet. It’s not intrusive—he is of course part of the show.

But as any great artist who has few rivals, he keeps challenging himself. In his last show, BILLY TWINKLE, he had a marionette manipulating another marionette.
In this show he tweaks and perfects that image.

He has one character, an old woman, who gets around by hoisting a walker. The image is hilarious and also jaw dropping in how he does it.

Geoffrey is a full grown dog, yet he sits comfortably in the chair beside Penny Plain, talking about their day, eating biscuits.

But it’s Burkett’s concerns for humanity, his rage, open heart, and tenderness that make this work so compelling.

I will say that I wish he had an editor to get him to cut some excesses, and a director to sharpen and shape the show.

And I’m sure his dramaturge Iris Turcott has said the same, but he is Ronnie Burkett and much as we say to cut and have a director, he does it his way.

But like all great artists, Burkett makes us see, listen and think in a different way.


Debra Hanson’s set is bright white, it looks ultra-modern but could also be a smart bunker. The walls are about 20 feet high with a single bank of windows almost at the top.

Atom Egoyan, the noted film director and screen writer, directs this and his direction adds to the coldness. When characters talk to each other they are a huge distance apart.

Characters rarely look at each other. Amelia orders her son James to look at her, but her back is to him.

Instead of talking facing each other characters talk facing the audience, with the person being addressed behind them. Deliberate? How unoriginal.

As for the acting, only Jeff Lillico as James and Brenda Robins as the housekeeper Rachel, are credible people.

As Amelia, Arsinee Khanjian is awkward, uncomfortable in her line readings and they seem just like that, halting readings. I get no sense that there is a person there.

I have to say, I found more humanity, humanness, cruelty and tenderness in Burkett’s PENNY PLAIN in which all the ‘actors’ were puppets, than I did in CRUEL AND TENDER in which all the actors were people.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING’s theatre critic and passionate playgoer.
You can read Lynn’s blog at

PENNY PLAIN plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace until February 26.

CRUEL AND TENDER plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until February 18.

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