Review: “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth”

Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth
Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth

RECOMMENDED

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through Feb. 19, 2017
Tickets: $40-$75
Phone: 312-337-0665

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Stories about storytelling are a long suit for Lookingglass Theatre Company, and the world premiere of “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth,” written and directed by ensemble member Doug Hara, explores some fascinating possibilities of the genre. There are only two live actors, Samuel Taylor and Lindsey Noel Whiting, who play the itinerant Victorian-looking storytelling couple of the title, and in the course of about 90-minutes they tell us their own story, as well as unraveling the mystery of the disappearance and death of the Big Bad Wolf, in the process touching on many fairy tales, both familiar and obscure.

They also reveal nuggets of wisdom that are, of course, as applicable to real life as to fiction. We are each the hero of our own story, as most of us already realize, but how that story is told can be as important as what actually happens. The ending can vary, too, and may not really matter all that much. Finally, the Pennyworth’s adventures raise an interesting question: If no one is telling a story, do the characters disappear from memory—and is it forever?

How “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth” is told is what makes it worth seeing. The script is thin, if convoluted—and the couple’s romance, revealed in a flashback, is rather flat—but the stagecraft is sensational. Scenic designer John Musial’s multiple flats provide backdrops for Mike Tutaj’s projections and the stunning shadow animations of Manual Cinema Studios. Blair Thomas’ amazing three-dimensional puppets range from a cute little pig to a giant wild boar (watch his eyes roll!) and even include a miniature Mrs. Pennyworth. Credit also goes to lighting designer Sarah Hughey, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, sound designer/composers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, and properties designer Amanda Herrmann. Most of all, the intricate timing necessary to make it all work is mind-boggling.

That’s because Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth, sometimes together and sometimes separately, move in and out of the fairy tales they tell, becoming shadow silhouettes themselves at times, finding some characters and seeking others. They are able to do this because, a year or so after meeting in the park
where he came weekly with his traveling cart to tell stories, they were given magic crystals by the Norse god Odin (in one scene, an uncredited actor plays him in silhouette) that enable them to do so.

The evening starts, however, with Whiting’s chipper Mrs. Pennyworth coming onstage, removing her hat and coat, and starting to tell us about herself and what Mr. Pennyworth would say and do if he were there—when he arrives and says and does exactly what she described. Then they discuss how they’re going to tell their story and, discarding the idea of going back to the beginning, settle on the Big Bad Wolf. Just as we may be getting bored, one distraught “wee” pig (puppet) rushes in, frantically and tearfully reports the wolf’s demise, and Mr. Pennyworth is dispatched to the fairy tale to talk to the other two pigs and investigate the circumstances of the crime.

Their detective work takes them to dozens of fairy tales, mostly briefly, though Mr. Pennyworth does have a long chat with Little Red Riding Hood (Whiting), who can’t recall exactly when or why the Big Bad Wolf disappeared.

Two key encounters are based on Norse myths, which may not be familiar to Chicago audiences. Mrs. Pennyworth (puppet version) visits the nasty giant wolf Fenrir, bound by superstrong silk ribbon, to get some insight into the wolf whose murder they’re trying to solve. The couple—first him, then her—is eventually led to Saehrimnir, the giant boar doomed to be butchered and cooked each night to feed the fallen warriors in Valhalla, only to be resurrected in the morning to have the brutal slaughter repeated over and over again. Tired of his pain and suffering, Saehrimnir has escaped his story and gone on the rampage through others.

How Mrs. Pennyworth coaxes him back vividly demonstrates the play’s message but comes at a price—for them and us. The outcome, though left ambiguous, may be sad for the Pennyworths, and although the story she tells is clear enough, the lead in is confusing. So many fairy tales are thrown at us that, however beautifully they’re illustrated, keeping them straight is difficult. The Norse mythology, especially, could use some clarification. The concept of the show is ingenious, and the execution is remarkable; the basic storytelling just needs a bit more work.