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vancouverplays review


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By Ronnie Burkett

This is Jerry's review of Burkett's 2013 performance of The Daisy Theatre at The Cultch.

The first thing you need to know about Ronnie Burkett's Theatre of Marionettes is that these puppets are not for kids. Not unless your kids are into striptease, metaphysics, dirty jokes, aging divas, crossdressed military men, and interspecies (puppet-human) fooling around.

Sure, his latest show, The Daisy Theatre, also has talking animals and the world's cutest fairy child with her own little stuffed bear. But this is sophisticated adult material. And it's some of the funniest, most brilliant theatre you'll ever be lucky enough to see.

Burkett is a regular at The Cultch, coming through every few years with the remarkable marionette shows he writes, designs, performs and tours throughout the world from his home base in Toronto. The last was Penny Plain in 2011, a gothic comedy about the apocalypse.

At the opening of The Daisy Theatre Burkett promises that we're not going to have to sit through the end of the world, crucifixions, the holocaust or any of the other heavy-duty themes featured in his plays. The Daisy Theatre is a cabaret, a mostly light-hearted variety show starring marionette characters, some from his previous plays, with a lot of improvisation thrown in. Scenes are presented in a different order every night, some characters sit out certain shows, and you never know what's going to come out of Burkett's mouth. Neither does he.

The characters, all less than two feet tall, are beautifully designed with detailed facial features, finely articulated bodies, fabulous costumes and accessories. Mrs. Madeline Porterhouse ("I'm just one of those cows who run the Canadian theatre") wears pearls, flowers woven carefully through her horns to match her evening dress, and fresh polish on her hooves. Despite her drooping breasts, elderly diva Esme Massengill still proudly displays her trademark blood-red lipstick and feather boa as she prepares to do her once-famous temptress dance.

Operating the marionettes from a platform above the small stage on which they perform, Burkett brings them vividly to life with his amazing technique. The opening musical number, performed by big-bosomed Dolly Wiggler, turns into a striptease. With her tiny marionette hands Dolly takes off her dress and carefully drops it to the floor: ba-boom! Shakes and shimmies, takes off her skirt and, one-handed, drops it to the floor: ba-boom! You laugh at the audacity of a puppet stripper and marvel at the puppeteer who can give her such lifelike manual skills and body language.

Often you forget that Burkett is there, although he operates the puppets in plain view, sings their songs and gives them all their distinctive voices and accents. But sometimes it becomes the Ronnie Show. When cute little child puppet Schnitzel wonders what greater power might be controlling her, she climbs up the curtain to find out. Reaching Burkett, she looks at his face: "Wow, those publicity photos are really old." At other times Burkett will make a dirty gay remark and crack himself up doing it.

The show, though, really belongs to his characters, most of them past their prime but living their lives with passion. Librarian Inez Throckmorton shows us how, late in life, she learned to twerk. Retired Major-General Leslie Fuqwar (Burkett has fun with names) blusters to the audience about the inappropriate tone of The Daisy Theatre ("You want good clean boring innocuous Canadian entertainment ... like Mary fucking Poppins!"), then reappears crossdressed in an elegant gown and pearls to sing a song about "fairies at the bottom of my garden."

Manny Teufel, former accountant turned fast-talking devil, offers us a deal for our souls. Melancholy, bony-kneed chanteuse Jolie Jolie, who regrets her aging "flesh that looks like a croissant left out in the rain," sings about loves lost in her Piaf-like heavy vibrato as her beautiful younger self (another marionette) looks on.

Esme Massengill won't begin her routine until the audience learns how to properly greet a diva ("I can stay here all night--I don't have a bladder"), then performs her erotic harem dance with the help of a male volunteer from the audience who acts as her eunuch. The x-rated things Esme does to her helper you'll have to see to believe.

While the show's dominant flavour is naughty and bawdy, the performances can also be deeply human. Mrs. Edna Rural, a widow from Turnip Corners, Alberta, describes herself as a silly old biddy in a Sears housedress. Her favourite expression is "Lord love a duck!" Sitting in an overstuffed chair, unconsciously stroking the doily that covers its arm, she tells a quietly moving story about her developing dementia and the way she tricked her late husband Stanley into holding her hand.

And when Schnitzel comes out again at the end of the show in pyjamas, carrying a tiny stuffed bear and saying goodnight in her sweet little voice, it'll break your heart.

Jerry Wasserman