Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Burkett's Daisy Theatre is a total slo-mo laff-hoot
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)
Esme Massengill was given the night off ON but will amuse Daisy fans in future shows no doubt.  
Alejandro Santiago photo.
From the footlights :  For the fourth time in recent years, Alberta-born Ronnie Burkett from TO brings his marionettes and puppetry silliness to The Cultch where he riffs off the audience to create hilarious vaudeville with strings & sticks & papier mache & exquisite rags of every thread imaginable.

My careworn 1943 leather Funk & Wagnall's defines vaudeville as "a miscellaneous theatrical entertainment consisting of...a series of short sketches, songs, dances, acrobatic feats, etc. having no dramatic connection." Can't imagine a better sum-up for Daisy.

Burkett's 2015 promotional material referred to him as "the renowned puppeteer provocateur", and that moniker still applies to him and the 40+ marionettes in his kit-bag, a dozen of which he breathes life and hilarity into each show.

How it's all put together : As seen also with the muppetry of Avenue Q, use of these animated dolls helps project and masquerade all the little neuroses that normally are squelched, by way of caution, in our brain's prefrontal cortex. 

But when we let them out for a walk through our thoughts, we do trouble about self-image. About secret lusts & urges & spatters of naughty thoughts. About love and loss and "sickness unto death" , about seeking the light and being liberated from darkness -- the whole dang metaphysical thang. 

Stock characters in Burkett's repertoire include what Urban Dictionary thinks might stand for "esteemed douche", Esme Massengill, pictured above. Regrettably, Esme was given the night off ON. But other favourites like good ol' Edna Rural from Turnip Corners, Alberta once more appeared in her cheap imported Sears housedress. Four new songs, a couple of new characters or old ones revisited -- my favourites being Woody the ventriloquist dummy and Ziggy who sweeps up the stage stardust -- and you have a night  that's rife with glee and empathy. 

As noted last time out, it's Burkett's manic, antic and endlesly mischievous brain that brings all these characters to life, gives them personalities crowds latch onto, makes them as real to big-kid audiences as ol' long-nose Pinocchio was to short-pant kids in grammar schools the world over.

What  makes the 2017 show shine : Constant gay references punctuate the performances and give rise to the characters' names that most often have sexual overtones. And Burkett's dialogues, for their part, are a constant double entendre barrage in that vein. [Not a show recommended for the sub-19 crowd.] But wysiwyg. His presence is without doubt commanding. Eighteen months back the NYT in a review declared "Mr. Burkett is a benevolent god : indelicate, a little poignant and kind of fantastic." Part Garrison Keillor, part Lily Tomlin, part the kids Macaulay Culkin / Anna Chlumsky from a quarter-century back, Burkett's verbal and emotional range is exceptionally broad. 

As well it is his Brobdingnagian girth up on the marionettes' bridge above-stage that makes the Lilliputian puppets under his deft hand so vibrant. One set piece involves the aging songstress Clara Dribbles and her grand piano accompanist Ivor Tinkles. This trip Burkett yanked an unsuspecting chap named Erwin Selak out of the audience to do a topless Tinkles routine which he carried off with genial and indulgent good cheer. This as foil to Burkett's booming verbal rendition, accidental or no, of local favourite Alan Zinyk who recently starred in the Cultch's Elbow Room Cafe

No question it is Burkett's range of the stentorian and boisterous but also his faint and enfeebled voices -- the whole of it rattles and prattles on spontaneously and unceasingly and engagingly for more than an hour-&-a-half -- indeed a tour de force performance that nigh unto exhausted me even if some of the riffs weren't quite as compelling as the 2015 show produced. 

The ever-cuddly-but-melancholy narrator for the night is androgynous Schnitzel, a wispy elfin metamorph with a daisy growing out of its head. The puppets' stage manager, France, challenges her at the show's start with tongue firmly in cheek : "We're here for a couple of weeks, take the bus to Seattle. When you get to the border tell them 'I'm a fairy, I'm an artist' -- what could go wrong?" Later, referring of course to The Satanic Twitter S. of 49, Schnitzel declares : "I'm about to go hang out back stage in the dark with my eyes wide open, that's the way we have to live these days. But don't forget when we're turning out the lights, daisies grow in the dark."

Who gonna like : Compared to the fast-twitch phenomena of video and film and t.v. and Internet images, live theatre is inherently slo-mo by comparison as the review hed suggests. With the added punch of marionettes at-hand, Daisy is an evening's outing that lets the audience bask in irony and witty jibe and just plain funnin'. This is Burkett's 30th Anniversary season -- coincidentally the ON show was played on International Puppetry Day -- and he is breathtaking, lit.-&-fig., with a vigour & wit & irony & play that are quite a marvel to behold.

The last three visits to Vancouver were all sold-out shows, so you better act fast to become yet another convert and devotee. This is a unique and cheeky form of live stage entertainment that honours and propels the dissident and mutinous roots from which it hath so richly grown [see Addendum below].

Particulars :  Created & performed by Ronnie Burkett. At the Cultch Historic Theatre, Vennables at Victoria in EastVan, through April 9th. Run-time between 90-120 minutes depending on how responsive "the dark people" [audience] turn out to be. Intermission? No. And no re-admits if you leave to visit the WC.  Tickets & schedules : Box office phone 604.251.1363 or via The Cultch website.

Production team for the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes : Marionette, Costume & Set Design : Ronnie Burkett.  Music & Lyrics & Sound Design : John Alcorn.  Production Manager & Artistic Associate : Terri Gillis.  Stage Manager : Crystal Salverda  Associate Producer : John Lambert.  Costumes : Kim Crossley.  Puppet Builders Angela Talbot, Gemma James-Smith, Marcus Jamin, Jesse Byiers w/ Gil Garratt & Martin Herbert.  Shoes & Accessories : Robin Fisher and Camellia Koo.  Marionette Controls : Luman Coad.  Majordomos : Robbie Buttinsky & Daisy Padunkles [sic].

N.B. The Daisy Theatre was co-commissioned by the Luminato Festival (Toronto) and the Centre for the Art of Performance at UCLA (Los Angeles). It was produced in association with the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes (Toronto), with development support from the Canada Council for the Arts.  

2015 Addendum redux : Some interesting history around puppetry within the Soviet Union and the Czech Republic is provided by the website roguery.com which features an essay "History of Radical Puppetry" by visual-&-performing artist K. Ruby whose e-mail handle is "wisefool." 

An edited squib of Ms. Ruby's essay is provided below that identifies the Czech "daisies" hook that Mr. Burkett lends to his production.

Under socialism Lenin had said, art would no longer serve the elite, "the upper 10,000 suffering from boredom and obesity," but the tense of millions of labouring people, "the flower of the country, its strength and future."

The design of mass festivals was not just a phenomenon but also an intentional and orchestrated design of the communist party, who were well aware of the power of visual metaphor. 


Early festivals were dominated by avant-garde artists, the futurists. But in the 20's and 30's "fine artists" were dissuaded and themes were simplified and made representational, carried out by the workers and unions themselves. Throughout the years before World War II, May Day and the Anniversary of the Revolution were events filled with elaborate and highly evocative street art, giant statuary, puppets of the evil imperialists designed to denigrate the bourgeois and celebrate the workers.

Indicative of the contradictions inherent to the Russian Revolutional Spirit, is the evolution of the party's relationship to the puppet character Petrouchka. Petrouchka was an underdog and popular hero, a working class trickster in conflict with authority, much like Punch -- a perfect revolutionary. The Red Petrouchka Collective started in 1927 and dozens of others sprang up in the following years. 


But of course Petrouchka's eternal problems with authority soon led the Soviet state to suppress the anarchic and rebellious Petrouchka in favour of a more benign version of the character, suitable only for children -- a parallel to the watering down of puppetry in the west for purposes of education and advertising.

Undisputed leaders of puppetry in Europe, the Czech puppeteers also had a tradition of radical puppetry. When the Czech language was banned by the Austrian Hungarian empire in the 19th century, puppeteers continued to perform in the Czech language as an act of defiance. 


During Nazi occupation, Czech puppeteers organized illegal underground performances in homes and basements with anti-fascist themes, called "daisies". Karel Capek, who wrote the famous anti-technology play RUR and coined the word robot, wrote anti-fascist prose pieces for the puppeteers. 

Josef Skupa, a famous popular puppeteer known for his leading character Spejbl, did wartime tours of adult puppet plays with subtle allegorical points imperceptible to the censor. In the concentration camps, Czech women made puppet shows from scraps of nothing to keep up their morale. Eventually the Nazis suppressed all Czech puppetry and over 100 skilled puppeteers died under torture in the camps.

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