Just two actors share the credits, yet the stage is crowded with characters in Lookingglass Theatre’s Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth. This fabulist romp is delightful and fully satisfying, conjuring up characters with artful stagecraft and puppetry that remind us of Red Moon Theatre when it was really cranking.
The puppetry of Blair Thomas is indeed impressive - the animated inanimates range from a mini-replica of Mrs. Pennyworth (Lindsey Noel Whiting) to stage-filling boar. And though puppets are plentiful in Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth, it is the astounding shadow animations that make this such an amazing experience. Both Whiting and Samuel Taylor are outstanding in their many roles (and stage formats).
Shadow characters grow and diminish, the moving silhouettes created by actors, puppets, and cut-outs on a stick playing against a backlights. Shadow animations by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller for Manual Cinema Studios, and projection designs by Mike Tutaj, are stunning as they work this magic.
Hidden behind screens, actors and puppeteers move fro and aft, upstage and down, shape shifting and changing in size. Going in every dimension, using the full depth of the stage, the actors and puppet masters play against the backlight to generate a unique images. (If there were an award for blocking, someone must nominate this show.)
Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth has a steampunk flavor to it, as the ostensibly Victorian-era buskers take a portable stage on the road across Europe, with performance-art renderings of classic fairy tales, after which they pass the hat.
The plot thickens as some of the characters disappear from the tales - notably the Big Bad Wolf. Mr. & Mrs. Pennyworth set out to solve the mystery, which also creates a social crisis - children, Red Riding Hood, even the three little pigs, are losing track of these stories.
Lookingglass Theatre has long mined traditional tales for its line-ups - rendering memorable, and dark, versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example. Hara broadens the source material, with appearances of the familiar (Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz) and less so (Sæhrímnir, a boar killed and eaten nightly by the Norse goods). The show lags a little as some of the Norse saga was being unpacked. But there was enough momentum to sustain it.
Written and directed by Lookinglass Ensemble member Doug Hara, this work is said to be influenced by Neil Gaiman, whose American Gods characters struggle through similar travails.
This is not just for kids - or maybe it's not even for them. I found myself wondering where it was a little too dark at times, but that is true in the Grimm tales as well.
Hara is entertaining us, but there is something reminding us that people lose hold of their culture when they lose their stories.The Pennyworth’s life work helps secure these stories - tales that keeps us all tethered to the collective memories that are the touchstones of civilization.