by Lynn on March 19, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Marionette, costumes and set design by Ronnie Burkett
Music, lyrics and sound design by John Alcorn
Starring: Ronnie Burkett
Rosemary Focaccia
Major-General Lesley Fuckwad
Meyer Lemon
Miss Lillian Lunkhead
And her brother who’s name I forgot.
Mrs. Edna Rural
Dolly Wiggler
Little Woody Linden
And various accommodating gentlemen from the audience.

Ronnie Burkett, that master of sharp-speaking marionettes is back with his freewheeling, bold, blistering show that takes no prisoners but often has moments of startling tenderness.

The Beginning. Ronnie Burkett created The Daisy Theatre in 2013 as a co-commission of the Luminato Festival and the Centre for the Art of Performance at UCLA in Los Angeles. It was billed as “unleashed and unscripted.” Burkett created marionettes specifically for this show. Each marionette had a story. And because the show was unscripted for the most part, each show in the run was different. The cast of characters would vary from show to show. People from the audience would be invited to participate. What was constant was the sheer power of Burkett’s imagination and his breathtaking artistry with the marionettes.

The Return. Ronnie Burkett has returned to Toronto with a cast of about 40 marionettes. On the opening night there are familiar faces such as Dolly Wiggler, stripper extraordinaire, who never met a piece of clothing she didn’t want to take off in front of an audience; Major-General Lesley Fuckwad (retired), a no-nonsense military man who loves to break into song while wearing an intriguing costume; Miss Lillian Lunkhead, “Canada’s oldest and worst actress” who has criss-crossed the country with her brother doing scenes from Shakespeare and other masters. She is particularly fond of playing Juliet’s death scene (Juliet of course was 14. Lillian hasn’t seen 14 for decades and decades. Pluck and bad lighting have gotten her through); Schnitzel, a sweet, wide-eyed fairy child with a flower growing out of the top of his bald head, who is brow-beaten and perhaps worse by his brutish friend Franz. Through it all Schnitzel is the fragile creature we hold dear and want to protect; and the equally beloved Mrs. Edna Rural, a widow, who has left her small Alberta town to come to Toronto. She encounters a different world, different lifestyles that occasionally startle her, but she remains, optimistic, open-hearted and compassionate.

There are also new creations (for me at least, even after seeing several Daisy Theatre shows at Luminato in 2013). Meyer Lemon is a tired, old LA ventriloquist who has not worked in a long time. Little Woody Linden is his puppet. They walk out slowly from the wings. Meyer Lemon holds Little Woody Linden. During the act Meyer Lemon falls asleep but still holds on to Woody. Woody is left to speak for himself. He recounts how his colleague was masterful at throwing his voice in his hay-day. He could pronounce the difficult “M” and no one could tell because his lips didn’t move. Those days are gone, but Woody can’t leave because the two are ‘attached’ after working together for so long. Meyer Lemon awakens when he hears applause. He takes a bow; holds Woody aloft in a salute of sorts, then shuffles off.

Rosemary Focaccia is the angriest, most frustrated lounge-singer you will ever see. She is frustrated and vociferous at the incompetence of the stage hands she has to contend with. Swearing is her natural way of expression. She demands a spotlight and gets it.

Comment. Burkett bounds out, enthusiastic, brimming with anticipation to see how the evening unfolds. You get the sense that while there might not be a formal script, there is a structure, an outline of the story of each marionette that might change a bit from show to show. Burkett’s mind is so quick, his perceptions of the world of each of his creations so clear, that as ideas strike him, he will ad lib a comment that will leave you reeling. You also know that he knows which marionettes will be included in that evening’s performance and which will not.

Burkett briefly says how The Daisy Theatre will be different from his usual shows. There won’t be references to the Holocaust, Armageddon, mass destruction, disease, pestilence, or any of the dark subjects that have filled his shows in the past. The Daisy Theatre presents vignettes of the lives of the individual marionettes we will meet in the evening. This is not to say the tone and attitudes are different from a regular Burkett show. They aren’t. In The Daisy Theatre Burkett still champions the people who time, opportunity and society have passed by, but who continue to try no matter how deluded or forgotten they are. He gives voice to those angry at an unfair, mean world, and he gives voice to those adding to that unfair, meanness. But through it all, balancing the darkness, are Schnitzel and Edna Rural, the heart and soul of The Daisy Theatre. They are the fragile in nature but the true, strong of heart

Of course Burkett can be using his marionettes to voice his own anger and disappointment at the world he lives in. His sense of observation is so clear and sharp you will find yourself wincing quite often at the truth of what he says.

The constant in a Ronnie Burkett production is his staggering artistry. The action unfolds in a decorated wagon that holds the marionettes and props. Burkett stands about five feet above the wagon’s stage manipulating the wires and bits and pieces attached to his marionettes below. Burkett is brilliant. Clear and simple. But he is an artist not content to leave it at that. He is always pushing himself to do it better; to try something knew.

You spend most of your time picking up your dropped jaw at something dazzling he has done and just accept it as the magic of the master. Just when you think you can deal with Dolly Wiggler, a marionette who strips seductively, Burkett introduces us to Meyer Lemon and Little Woody Linden. In this instance he is manipulating Woody, a marionette whose mouth is opening and closing, who tries to jump away but is attached. I have long given up wondering, “How does he do that?” I just accept it for the artistry that is Ronnie Burkett.

I will be interviewing Ronnie Burkett tomorrow morning, March 20 on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM at 9 am.

Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes presents:

Opened: March 18, 2015
Closes: April 5, 2015
Running time: 90 minutes to 2 hours.

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