Funny, charming and moving world-premiere multi-media fable
|Lookingglass Theatre i/a/w Manual Cinema Studios presents|
|Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth|
Review by John Olson
It’s been said in different ways, by different people, that one is not dead until they’re forgotten – or until the last person who knew them is dead – or other variations on that theme. It’s also been said that one’s legacy depends on how they are remembered – how their story is told, as in “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” – a closing refrain from a certain musical about the guy on our $10 bills. Lookingglass’s Doug Hara has fashioned a charming and touching fable on these two related themes, presented with the help of some highly inventive multi-media stagecraft in this world premiere production at Lookingglass. It concerns a married couple who are itinerant storytellers. They travel with a painted wagon reminiscent of Professor Marvel’s in The Wizard of Oz. They live in some undefined era, but judging from Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, sometime in the early 20th or late 19th century. They have a way – which is explained not immediately but eventually – to visit the characters in the stories they tell. In another reality, the characters live their stories over and over, apparently experiencing their story’s events as their story is being told somewhere.
The play opens with the pair greeting the audience directly and deciding to tell us a story that involves themselves as well as characters from fairy tales and mythology. John Musial’s set – a series of mobile screen panels – move into new positions as if by magic and the couple begins their story. The Pennyworths’ tale is of the time they were visited by Dennis, one of the “three little pigs,” who told them that the Big Bad Wolf had been killed by an outside force and not by one of the three pigs, as in the story. With the disappearance of the wolf, their story becomes less interesting and less likely to be told. And if their story is not told, they will cease to exist. This is something the Pennyworths can’t allow, so they begin an investigation to find the murderer of the Big Bad Wolf.
The couple’s journeys into fairy tales and fables are told with an imaginative mix of puppetry and shadow projections, frequently combining the actors’ live shadows with projected animation. Blair Thomas’ puppets, skillfully manipulated and voiced by the two-person cast of Samuel Taylor and Lindsey Noel Whiting as the title characters, range from hand puppets to life-size and from cute to threatening. Whiting gives a lovely, nuanced performance as the kind and gentle Mrs. Pennyworth, who possesses a sharp sense of humor along with a tinge of sadness. Taylor is less layered as Mr. Pennyworth. Perhaps it’s the character as written by Hara – the male half of the couple is more businesslike, less emotional. Taylor’s understudy in the role is the much-praised comic actor Matthew Crowle (Leo in The Producers at Mercury). I’d love to see what he can do with the role.
In its dramedic quality and mashup of fairy tales, one can’t help but compare Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth to Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods, but there’s room for both pieces. They both use fairy tales to communicate themes of importance to adults as well as kids: Woods teaches the importance of community, Pennyworth urges us to view and remember each other with kindness. Pennyworth could benefit from a few tweaks – it takes a while to understand the world of the play and how the couple travels into these alternate realities. And there are just a few slow spots, but the piece is in extraordinarily good shape for its world premiere. Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth is a story about kindness that deserves to be told for a long time.
Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth continues through Date at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan (map), with performances Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2pm & 7:30pm. Tickets are $40-$75, and are available by phone (312-337-0665) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LookingglassTheatre.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
behind the scenes
Doug Hara (writer, director), John Musial (scenic design), Mara Blumenfeld (costume design), Sarah Hughey (lighting design), Andre Pleuss, Ben Sussman (sound design, composer), Amanda Hermann (properties designer), Mike Tutaj (projection designer), Blair Thomas (puppet designer), Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace and Julia Miller for Manual Cinema Studios (shadow animations), Jeri Frederickson (stage manager), Sarah Burnham (production manager), Eleanor Richards (technical director), Liz Lauren (photographer)