by Lynn on November 30, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Theatre, Canadian Stage, Toronto, Ont. Until Dec. 18, 2022.

Created and performed by Ronnie Burkett
Music arranged and produced by John Alcorn

T’is the season and Ronnie Burkett, that master of sharp-speaking marionettes, is back with his freewheeling, bold, blistering show that mixes Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Burkett’s own Daisy Theatre mayhem.  

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.

When Ronnie Burkett began the Daisy Theatre he started with 40 marionettes. For this run in Toronto he now has 56 although he doesn’t use them all. It is presented as a ‘vaudeville entertainement.’

The Story, sort of and Performance.  Theatre diva, Esmé Massengill is looking forward to performing her show for her adoring fans. But she has been told by her stage manager, Bob Cratchett, that there is no show that night, Christmas Eve, nor the next night, Christmas Day. Esmé is furious. What will she do without a show?

Bob knows what he would like to do—stay home with his wife ‘and the many children that they can’t afford.’ One of the children is Tiny Tim, who is not well and uses crutches. Bob meekly asks Esmé for the two days off and she reluctantly agrees. Her nephew asks her to come to his house for some Christmas cheer. She sneers at him and sends him away.

Esmé is approached by two old time theatre artists asking for donations to the Actors’ Fund for actors in need. Again, she is furious: “Are there no touring productions?” “Have they approached the Mirvishes?” Esmé has no sympathy.  She goes home and is then visited by various ghosts—past, present and to come- who try and get her in gear to be a better human being.

Interspersed with the Dickens story, are some of the many and various marionettes in Ronnie Burkett’s astonishing arsenal. There is 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 beguiling frock; Rosemary Focaccia is the angriest, most frustrated lounge-singer you will ever see; Meyer Lemon is a ventriloquist and Little Woody Linden is his puppet. Schnitzel, a sweet, wide-eyed fairy child with a flower growing out of the top of his bald head. Schnitzel plays Tiny Tim with great empathy. Schnitzel is the fragile creature we hold dear and want to protect; there is the equally beloved Mrs. Edna Rural, a widow from rural Alberta. She has written a cookbook: “Keep Your Fork, There’s Pie.” She is the heart, soul and gracious humanity, with Schnitzel, of the show.

Comment. Burkett appears, enthusiastic, brimming with impish good humour. He notes that there is no script so anything can happen, and often does.  But you get the sense that while there might not be a formal script, there is a structure to the evening and lots and lots of irreverence. If there is a quibble, it’s that the show does need trimming, editing, a check on the free-wheeling.

He will ask for volunteers to assist him. A woman will be asked to work the Daisy Orchestra and perhaps give a kiss to an old marionette who sweeps the theatre floor. A man will be asked to come up and take his shirt off and participate in the story-telling.  Burkett’s mind is so quick, his perceptions of the world so clear and prescient, that as ideas strike him, he will ad lib a comment that might leave you reeling. Be prepared—he’s masterful.

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. Dolly Wiggler—a stripper—and Burkett manipulates that marionette and Dolly does strip. Burkett not only manipulates Meyer Lemon, the ventriloquist, but also Meyer’s ‘dummy’, Little Woody Linden, whose mouth opens and closes. Astonishing. As a true artist, Burkett is constantly pushing himself (never mind an ‘envelope’, there is no envelope that can contain his imagination). He says that it’s impossible to make a marionette walk backwards. Burkett does it. His creations kneel, cross their legs, do high kicks and seem to become human before our eyes.

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. I have long given up wondering, “How does he do that?” I just accept it for the artistry that is Ronnie Burkett. Welcome back, Mr. Burkett. It’s been too long.

Canadian Stage Presents:

Plays until: Dec. 18, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes, but often longer. (No intermission).

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