This isn’t your average puppet show! A Canadian theatre legend in his own right, Ronnie Burkett brings his virtuosity back to Ottawa stages once more with The Daisy Theatre, playing until December 18th at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. This NSFK (not safe for kids) show is laugh-out-loud funny and full of surprises given its mostly improvised nature, though the marionettes are certainly worth seeing in themselves. An expert blend of highly technical execution and free-flowing theatricality, The Daisy Theatre shows us exactly why Burkett is the master of puppets.
This production, we are told by the creator-performer at the top of the show, is a response to the more somber nature of his previous work like Penny Plain or, my personal favourite, 10 Days on Earth where the playwright’s dark texts belies some bittersweet or melancholy through-line of hope and light- even if it’s just the tiniest of glimmers. Burkett says that The Daisy Theatre is his way of “[lightening] the fuck up”, however, the sheer poignancy that characters like Schnitzel and Woody bring to the stage gives the piece a real gravitas that is unmatched by most improvised performances. With a veritable arsenal of marionettes at his fingertips (quite literally, in fact, and there are 44 marionettes in total), Burkett almost single-handed (metaphorically speaking, no pun intended) performs a puppet cabaret filled with burlesque, vaudeville, and other assorted stage acts that are only brought out depending on how you vote as an audience.
These ‘acts’ range in abilities and “talents” which results in much hilarity for most of the show. Our first act is a beguiling burlesque performance featuring a pastoral farm girl puppet who manages to strip down to her very knickers (complete with nipple pasties!) much to the amazement of the audience; we are also paid visit by Jesus Christ, Son of God, whose caricature of his stereotypical Jewish family will have you busting a gut (especially if you enjoy puns about the Passion of Jesus); and because this is Ottawa and we love our Shakespeare, we elected to bring on stage Lillian Lunkhead, Canada’s Oldest and Worst Actress, who gave us a most liberal interpretation of Romeo and Juliet’s final moments. Interspersed with a myriad of other acts (some of which we’ll get into a little later) this show keeps a breakneck pace which makes the 105-120 minute, no intermission, run time much more bearable.
To see Burkett perform on stage is incredible. One thing that’s important to understand when it comes to the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes is that this is a true craftsman and someone who has been developing his craft for decades. This is an artist who hand crafts and designs each and every marionette and who builds his own stage-within-a-stage to best optimize his performances. In particular, the stage constructed for The Daisy Theatre is quite clever with its changing backdrops and jack-in-the-box style musical orchestra.
That being said, it is clear that the stars of the show are the puppets themselves. Beautifully crafted with the most thoughtful attention to detail, Burkett’s marionettes could certainly be considered works of art. Though, I find, sometimes the term “work of art” doesn’t seem to jive wholeheartedly with these creative instruments that ostensibly come to life the second they hit the proverbial limelight, embodying fully fleshed out characters each with their own respective performance histories. The puppets have become imbued with so much personality and past experiences that it’s difficult to consider them mere objects.
Take, for example, the vaudeville act featuring the infamous ventriloquist Meyer Lemon and his puppet Woody. Now, the meta-theatrical significance where a puppet is operating another puppet shouldn’t be lost on you (the reference to being unknowingly controlled by some “invisible” puppet master is made a couple times throughout the show), but the reason why the scene is so effective, for me anyways, is in part because of the backstory (briefly summarizing the duo’s accomplishments as the world’s oldest vaudeville company) Burkett gives us before they enter; and also because of Woody’s characterization of Meyer which inadvertently characterizes himself and how he feels about their working relationship turned friendship. It really speaks to the immense talent of this performer that he is able to illicit such a powerful emotional response to a puppet that’s actually been designed as a traditional wooden ventriloquist dummy (as opposed to a puppet that’s embodying a realistic human form or an animal form). “If there’s no tomorrow, then you’re gonna let go of me”, Woody pleads desperately to a seemingly unresponsive Meyer and even though, on the surface, Woody is a puppet’s puppet we don’t doubt for a second that his feelings are real.
Furthermore, Burkett’s puppets, in their ‘inanimate realness’, have the ability to subvert cultural and social norms and etiquettes through the apparent “harmless fun” (Eric Coates, “Artistic Director’s Message”, Show Program) presented to us by the members of the Daisy Theatre. The suspension of disbelief can be so real that puppets can often make us do and/or think things we’ve never given consideration to before. This can be seen in the two moments of audience participation on stage whereby the volunteers are put in rather outrageous situations with the puppets where human performers might otherwise have a hard time getting away with. A great example is when Rosemary Foccaccia flashes her lady bits to the unsuspecting (and thus embarrassed) gentleman volunteer, much to the audience’s titillation.
This idea feeds into the character Schnitzel’s final thoughts at the very end of the show where he speaks to being brave in the moment and not being afraid to “cross the line” (a reference to an earlier vignette in which Schnitzel and scene partner Franz discuss their preferences between left and right stage now that “nobody stands in the middle anymore”) in order to see the other side or gain new perspective- even if that perspective seems unsavory. It comes across as a bit of an “aha! Gotcha!” moment, but there is genuine humor in Schnitzel’s childlike admission of the show’s moral because it is so seemingly obvious when you finally hear it (much like Jesus’ “sage” advice to the world: “Just don’t be a dick!”).
Of the select puppets we saw on stage opening night, I noticed that there was a distinct lack of PoC (puppets of colour). There are lots of female characters, to be sure, and we even had the pleasure of giving puppet-drag queen Dinah Dooya (sp?) her very first performance at the Daisy Theatre, but even in the puppet orchestra I noticed things are a little…white. This is merely a stream of consciousness or inquisition as the biggest caveat to this argument is that I didn’t see all of the 44 puppets so I have no idea who else is ‘hanging out’ backstage. In any case, it got me wondering if this is a conscious decision on Burkett’s part feeling as though you shouldn’t write about what you don’t know (or appropriate, culturally, what isn’t yours), or even wanting to avoid the awkward connotation of a white man playing puppet master to a PoC. All this to say, I neither want to assign motivation to an individual I am not personal acquainted with nor do I intend to suggest that Burkett has some sort of racial bias, only that there seems to be something still missing from Burkett’s cultural portrait of Canada depicted through the puppet’s various backgrounds. This is simply a point of interest for me.
I can’t even being to describe to you the magic that Ronnie Burkett creates on stage through the manipulation of his marionettes. Sometimes it’s hard to know who to watch because the puppeteer himself becomes a character and seeing him work and voice all of the puppets is a show in itself. Most importantly the range of emotions the spectator feels is pretty impressive given the piece’s improvised nature and it’s morals and values (represented by dear little Schnitzel) ring true in 2016 and give us all a little hope for the coming future. Leave the kids at home this holiday season because I can guarantee that you’ve never seen a puppet show quite like this before- no strings attached!*
*okay, maybe a few strings
The Daisy Theatre
Presented by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes
Created and Performed by Ronnie Burkett
Playing at the Irving Greenberg Centre until December 18th.
Ticket information can be found here.
*please be advised that children under the age of 16 will not be admitted to the theatre*
(side note: shout out to my Theatre in English Canada prof Janne Cleveland who instilled in me the importance of familiarizing oneself with Canadian theatre greats like Ronnie Burkett so I could truly appreciate this performance.)