Chicago Theater Review: MR. AND MRS. PENNYWORTH (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 18, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

FIXING FICTION

It’s not your usual detective story: A quaint couple works to restore a villain suddenly lost from countless fairy tales. Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth depicts a very proper Edwardian couple, a tinkerer and a part-time anthropologist (Samuel Taylor and Lindsey Noel Whiting) who bonded after meeting in the park every Saturday to share their love of storytelling. Together they become superb “pretenders”: He has a magic cart full of wonderful inventions for story-chasing. Pursuing field studies, she supplies the cultural context for the lore they preserve and protect.

An enchanting Lookingglass Theatre Company world premiere, Doug Hara’s 90-minute one-act employs Mike Tutaj’s brilliant silhouette, shadow and figure projections from Manual Cinema, Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman’s wizard sounds and score, Amanda Herrmann’s deft props, Blair Thomas’s intricately scaled puppets, and John Musial’s supple scenery to spin a meta-fictional drama about the power of stories—where we find them, why we need and tell them, and what happens when the make-believe falls apart or fades away.

A tribute to the imagination (both in content and execution), Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth begins as the talespinning duo discover a death in the family of fiction: The archetypal Big Bad Wolf has disappeared from the world’s folklore; Red Riding Hood (and her regularly doomed grandmother) lack a constant threat in the woods. The three little pigs have no reason to seek shelter in a brick house (in the 1930s a metaphor for survivors fighting together during the Depression). It’s not as if this lupine menace can be dismissed: As the collector-couple learn, we must prize equally the antagonists and nemeses, the hard as well as happy endings and—even and eventually—death itself to reflect the full reality from which fables draw.

So, with the husband newly returned from a trek to Africa (always in search of other people’s imaginings), the traveling twosome embark on a whimsical search for the wolf-murderer. The animation charts their peregrinations, the captions even mirroring French dialogue when the script selects English. It’s a j0urney that splits them up and takes them far beyond such curious couplings as the monkey king and the Buddha. Learning that little beings can be stronger than they seem, they range through traditional wolf “lairs” (though, strangely, Peter and the Wolf are never investigated), looking for the miscreant who violated the norms of narrative.

After stop-overs with the White Rabbit in his famous hole, as well as visits to more obscure and arcane fabrications, their dream quest takes them to Norse mythology, specifically the Great Boar who threatens the cloud castle of Asgard and the elysian fields of Valhalla. This terrible creature, who kills when he feels disrespected, must be made to believe that he’s crucial to the Viking gods in death if not in life. Every character counts. Goodness means nothing without the contrast of evil to define it. To prove this paradox in the worst way, the Pennyworths are ready to make their own sacrifice, life giving all for art.

With its winsome blend of magic realism, sci-fi fantasy, eco-awareness, and elegant escapism, Lookingglass’s latest is much more than a literary divertissement. For all its coy to precious mind games, it’s a serious statement on the worth of wonder to the world we endure. More than storytelling shenanigans of the Sondheim persuasion (Into The Woods), Whiting and Taylor’s adventures are searches for identity, shared ground among all the dynamic differences that fuel the world’s yarns and legends.

We sit in a theater, so much tale-telling turf, from just such common cause. Never too often, it’s wonderful to have a playful play to validate that happy escape. Like Lookingglass itself, these Pennyworths, devotees of the craft of the chronicle, are keeping it real by making us human.

photos by Liz Lauren

Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Water Tower Water Works
821 N. Michigan
ends on February 19, 2017
for tickets, call 312.337.0665
or visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ron Maginot December 24, 2016 at 1:32 pm

Is this show suited for adults? How much are tickets? Performance
Times? Thank you.

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Editor-in-Chief Tony Frankel December 24, 2016 at 5:29 pm

Yes, the show is just as fanciful for adults as children, Ron. Visit Lookingglass’s web site to find out about performance times and ticket prices.

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