Laugh Alert! Penny Penniworth


By Alix Cohen

In a remote part of the county of Wootenhamshireshire, in a hamlet known as Uglyberry-on-the-bog, the Penniworth family lives and modestly prospers. Penny, a sensible girl, (though not for her times) chooses the sincere and loving blacksmith’s boy Hotchkiss Spit, over the egotistical bully, Rupert Stryfe, Heir to the House of Stryfe. Unfortunately, Hotchkiss, or Hock, flees after a fight with Rupert under the impression he’s killed the man. Rupert is, in fact, operated on by the local surgeon, a watch maker, (with hysterical results) and returns to darken the story later.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hapless Penniworth invests riskily with Lord Stryfe losing both family manor and money. He dies leaving his wife and daughter to fend for themselves. Penny takes a job as a ladies companion to Miss Havasnort, who is “a few plums short of a pudding,” holed up and mourning twenty years for lack of a corpse (after which she can stop.) Needless to say, nothing is what it appears to be.

Billed as “Charles Dicken’s lost epic,” Penny Penniworth is a rollicking parody of many familiar Dicken’s characters and plots rearranged to create one of the cleverest puzzles you’ve encountered since Rubic’s Cube. Here, however, no concentration is necessary. The tale zips along with never a dull moment and lots of laughter. We’re along for the ride.

Playwright, Chris Weikel is a craftsman. He understands his source, his method: parody, and his medium. There might have been half a dozen less than buoyant quips in the entire play. They passed quickly. Bravo! It’s a hoot.

Director, Mark Finley is a master with pacing, allowing just enough time for audience or actors to register and “get it.” Hock’s almost literally unintelligible accent and Pinchnose’s (the lawyer’s clerk) original stutter are grand. The physicality of lawyer,

Bartholomew Bunting and that of Malodorous Dump (a henchman) look like historically accurate newspaper caricatures of the era. Small gestures are telling, large ones comic. The stage space is used well.

Four extremely talented actors play dozens of roles, switching wildly distinctive accents, particular characteristics, and sexes with the alacrity of go-carts. Sometimes this is done offstage, others before our eyes with a focus and skill making it even funnier. Watch for the part of the play when Penny changes back and forth from a character called, honestly, Malodorous Dump. There’s a moment, rapidly changing from one costume to another, the realization that a costume is out of sync with her speech shows on her face with a successive: whoops, well…, on with it – that’s simply wonderful. Like all good farce the actors play it broad, but straight.

Jamie Heinlein (Penny Penniworth and others) is both an expert at the naïve deadpan necessary to play Penny and thespian enough to give us the exaggerated Malodorous Dump. Her aptitude in the lead creates an effective (and flexible) theatrical backbone. Makes me curious to see her in other work.

Christopher Borg (Hotchkiss Spit and others) is marvelous. Transforming from Hock, to Dodgeful Archer (a boy,) to Mrs. Penniworth, Borg is rubber-faced and accomplished in each persona. The seriousness with which he effects Mrs. Penniworth makes her an affectionate travesty. Though foolish, he never plays a fool.

Jason O’Connell (Rupert Stryfe, Heir to the House of Stryfe and others) makes the most of the sniggering, affected fop of a villain he acts. (You can imagine him twirling a moustache). His Pinchnose is perfectly realized in the time and credible effort taken to expel a word. O’Connell even plays a performing monkey with originality.

Ellen Reilly (Ms. Havasnort and others) tackles both the sardonic Ms. Havasnort and the affected Lawyer, Bunting with spirited and earnest attention. Her Ms. Havasnort has an offhand morbidity she portrays to its best advantage. Still, Reilly seems to be having less of a good time than her cast mates. The costumes by House of Goody are great looking and ingeniously developed to morph.

Sound Designer, Aaron Blank and Original Music Composer, Peter Saxe add to the mis en scene with their appropriate and humorous work. A ball, in particular, seems filled with festive dancers with the help of these two.

Penny Penniworth is an ingenious romp; a satisfying evening of adeptly produced fun.

Penny Penniworth by Chris Weikel
Directed by Mark Finley
Presented by Emerging Artists Theater at
TADA Theater 15 West 28th Street
Between Broadway and 8th- 2nd Floor
Running time 70 smiling minutes
Through October 2, 2010

Photos, from top:
1. and 2. Jamie Heinlein and Christopher Borg.
3. Christopher Borg, Jamie Heinlen, Jason O’Connell, and Ellen Reilly.
4. Jamie Heinlen
5. Christopher Borg and Jason O’Connell.
6. Christopher Borg, Jamie Heinlein, Jason O’Connell (lying on floor), and Ellen Reilly.
All photos by Ned Thorne

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