Before seeing Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth at the Lookingglass, I assumed that my tendency to mourn out-of-print books was unique. Take, for example, Sweet Pickles. This series of children’s books focused on a town populated by 26 animal characters—Angry Alligator, Bashful Bear, Creative Camel, and so on—each with his/her own book. My father ordered these books through a subscription, and we received one in the mail every two months. I learned to read with Sweet Pickles. I attribute my love of maps to the hours I spent studying the town map attached to the back endpaper of each book.* What has happened to Doubtful Dog, Enormous Elephant, and Fearless Fish? They live on in my memory, but they become a little more translucent each time one of their few-remaining books is discarded. Someday, I realize, they will simply disappear.
Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth, written and directed by Doug Hara, is highly suspenseful and even a little frightening at times, not so much because of the antagonists that Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth encounter but more because of the play’s inciting question: what happens when the Big Bad Wolf disappears? Hare brilliantly combines elements from mythology, science fiction, and children’s folk tales as our protagonists race to save literature’s most beloved stories.
Enter Dennis, an adorable pig with a child’s pronunciation (“horrible” become “howible”), who ventures from his story to the real world to find his friends Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth. This married couple are traveling storytellers with a cart full of books working in an unspecified time period resembling the 1800’s. To audiences, they appear to be mere disseminators of entertaining tales for donations. However, they possess a special teleportation amulet that allows them to journey into the stories. They are, in fact, the keepers of the stories and the protectors of the lovable mythological and fairy tale characters that will cease to exist once their stories are forgotten.
Dennis, in a fit of nervous excitement, tells Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth that he and his brothers built their three homes from straw, hay, and bricks. They waited for the wolf to arrive to blow down their houses—but the wolf has stopped coming. The pigs along with characters from a plethora of other stories are horrified. What will become of them if the wolf disappears forever? Indeed, expect chills in the moment when Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth open their copy of “The Three Little Pigs” to find only dust on blank pages.
What ensues is a fast-paced detective story as Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth move from tale to tale, interviewing characters, finding whatever information they can to determine what has happened to the wolf. Their search eventually takes them to the depths of Norse mythology, where they encounter Fenrir, a giant wolf, who leads them to the even more terrible boar Sæhrímnir.
Credit Hara’s script for blending allusions to well-known tales like “The Little Mermaid” and “Little Red Riding Cloak” with tales of Norse mythology little known to today’s readers. Sæhrímnir the boar, we discover, is something of a Norse Prometheus. While preparing for war, the cook of the Gods needed to feed a mighty army, so he slaughtered the giant Sæhrímnir. Then, to provide sustenance the next day, the cook brought Sæhrímnir back to life so he could be slaughtered again. Over and over. Without giving away too much of the mystery, it is suffice to say that the absence of the Big Bad Wolf relates to Sæhrímnir’s motivation to escape his fate by being forgotten once and for all.
At Lookingglass, a script filled with such fantasy is going to be enhanced by breath-taking visuals. A team of designers and animators including John Musial and Blair Thomas capture each character using a variety of plush, wire, and shadow puppets that overtake The Lion King in spectacle. Add in fantastic performances from Samuel Taylor and Lindsey Noel Whiting, who bring emotional depth to Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth while also running about the stage creating every puppet image. One can only guess what their FitBits would register after every energized performance.
Alas, my Sweet Pickles characters did not make cameos in this production (continuing through February 19), but Hara’s script motivated me to remember the hours we spent together when I was a child… and, yes, I spent some time rediscovering them on the Internet. Inevitably, characters will be forgotten and replaced by something new, but Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth remind us that nostalgia can help postpone the time when those beloved words on the page turn to dust.
*NOTE: For those not familiar with Sweet Pickles, the Internet provided resources to help me share the Sweet Pickles world.