Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth, written and directed by longtime Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member Doug Hara, explores the ephemeral nature of storytelling — from a bloody myth that becomes gentler as the generations pass, to the self-editing we all indulge in when we tell our own life stories. The play, Hara's debut as a playwright, travels through tales of heroes, wolves, lovers, and gods, linking them all together with that tried-and-true trope, the murder mystery.
The titular Pennyworths (Samuel Taylor and Lindsey Noel Whiting) are professional storytellers, traveling from city to city to tell their tales. They are aided in their livelihood by Odin himself, who has chosen these mortals as instruments to help keep his memory alive. In the world of Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth, stories are made stronger every time they are told in the mortal world, and if they are truly forgotten, they will fade away into eternity. So the Pennyworths are given pieces of Odin's power, the ability to flit from to fiction to fiction, in exchange for stoking the flames of his mythology. But when the Big Bad Wolf is brutally dismembered and killed, fating his story to be forgotten, the Pennyworths take it upon themselves to explore countless fictions until they find his killer.
It's hardly a new premise, but even the dustiest old yarns can be novel if they're told well, and Lookingglass has assembled a team of dynamic artists to ensure a beautiful experience. John Musial's set is versatile in its bare theatricality, with moving flats that provide a canvas for Mike Tutaj's projections and shadow animations by Manual Cinema.
As the plot expands in scope, so too do the puppets. Seemingly simple shadow puppetry leads to immersive animated landscapes, and as the pace picks up, we are introduced to remarkable three-dimensional puppets by puppet designer Blair Thomas, culminating with an astounding larger-than-life boar.
These projections, animations, and puppets are seamlessly interactive, with both Taylor and Whiting doing double and even triple duty as multiple characters in a scene. Both actors carry their heavy-duty roles without missing a beat, with Whiting especially bringing a lightness to Mrs. Pennyworth that goes a long way to humanizing a role that is never entirely fleshed out.
The plot of Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth serves adequately to get our heroes from spectacle to spectacle, but never means much more than that, despite some sweet moments between Whiting and Taylor. There is some slippery internal logic, loose threads that remain unaddressed, and crowded pacing. Then there is the question of the targeted audience: The play is too scary and gory for most young children, but not emotionally grounded enough for many adults. Since the play firmly succeeds on a technical level, it's a shame that the whole never lives up to the sum of its breathtaking parts.