A Stunning Bouquet
Ronnie Burkett's The Daisy Theatre
What is it about puppets that charm, disarm, and delight? Is it, as Heinrich von Kleist said in his seminal essay “On the Marionette Theater,” that puppets “lack [the] self-consciousness” of humans and are therefore capable of helping us to access our purest emotions, of helping us move beyond the blocks keeping us from acting with clarity and purposefulness? Is it that puppetry offers permission for radicalism of political thought that so often eludes us elsewhere? Or might it be that puppets are often among the first exposure people have to live performance (or televised performance, as in the case of Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock) as young people, resulting in nostalgic connection to the art form? Whatever the case, I submit to you that puppetry is among the most exciting and vital performance disciplines today, and Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes’s production of The Daisy Theatre at the Luminato Festival in Toronto was just as charming, disarming, and delightful as anything I’ve seen in a good long while. Burkett’s puppets seem to be imbued with souls, flawed, longing, and so transcendentally human.
Burkett, a Siminovitch-prize-winning creator and performer, is among the foremost puppetry artists in North America, and has received numerous accolades over the years for his many shows, including The Memory Dress Trilogy, 10 Days on Earth, Penny Plain, and Provenance. The work often deals very sensitively and emotionally with the fringes of our world—the prostitutes, old women, differently abled, and (yes) even actors and actresses—and it has a way of doing more than just pulling at our heart strings as Burkett manipulates the puppet strings. He has an uncanny knack for capturing the essences of many people and distilling it down into one beautifully rendered character.
Those “daisies” were so named because, like the eponymous flower, they grew in the dark of basements and the back rooms of bars, where they didn’t need tending from the official state apparatus and where they also could not be mowed down.
The Daisy Theatre is homage to the “daisy” underground performances organized by Czech puppeteers during Nazi occupation, mostly on radical and extremely anti-fascist themes that never would have passed the Nazi censors. The Czechs have a long history of subversive puppetry, particularly with marionettes, also Burkett’s art form. Those “daisies” were so named because, like the eponymous flower, they grew in the dark of basements and the back rooms of bars, where they didn’t need tending from the official state apparatus and where they also could not be mowed down. In Burkett’s own words, “The Daisy Theatre is an experiment in returning puppetry to a more immediate, rough-and-tumble nightly entertainment, featuring a repertory of diverse marionette characters in improv, variety numbers and audience interaction.” No one night of The Daisy Theatre was the same—I saw two nights in order to get some perspective on how the show changed from night to night—and although we all live in a democratic and free country, there was still a sense of transgression and conspiracy. Each night we were about to see something that brought us in on a conspiracy of improvisation and political incorrectness.
The Daisy Theatre’s rep company included the dipsomaniacal vamp Esmé Massengill; Inez the theater volunteer; Madeline Porterhouse the cow (recently widowed by the death of her husband, Chuck); Murray Teufel; the washed up cabaret singer Jolie Jolie; cross dressing Major General Fuckwod (Ret.); Franz the sadist; Schnitzel, a puppet who wishes above all to have wings to be a fairy; and dear old Edna Rural, an Alberta widow who recently moved from her farm to Parkdale, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Toronto, among others I’m sure I didn’t see! The sheer breadth of characters should give some indication of the fertile mind giving voice to them. Although there were “sets,” so to speak, outlining what the gist of a particular scene was about, but Burkett determined the order of the scenes and their precise content on the day of the show.
In addition to conceiving the shows, serving as manipulator, and performing, Burkett also builds the Marionettes, and I had an opportunity to witness the mastery of this craft when I was called up from the audience on my second night to run the band—itself a complex puppet orchestra controlled by a single spinner—for Jolie Jolie. Although I was only permitted to look at Jolie for a short time as she demanded, “Look at me, don’t look at me, please look at me!” the expressiveness of Jolie’s face, body, and especially her eyes, was striking. (Another audience member was drafted to play the piano for Major General Fuckwod (Ret.) as he delighted us with that old music hall hit “There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of My Garden” in full drag, and, on the nights I was there, both the recruits were remarkably expressive given that they lack expertise, another testament to Burkett’s craft.)
The improv was pointed and subversive, with Esmé taking shots at everyone from the artistic director of the Canadian Stage Company to the theater critic for the Toronto Star, not to mention Franz’s persistent threats of sodomizing the audience while using cute Schnitzel as bait. Burkett also chose to include wee playlets from some of the most exciting playwrights in Canada, including Daniel MacIvor, Anusree Roy, Damien Atkins, and Amy Lee Lavoie, among others. On opening, Anusree Roy read the part of an Indian father taking his daughter out to meet a date; by the end of the cab ride he has already planned out the wedding, and the audience was keeling over with laughter, despite the fact that neither puppet looked like they had ever been near India, let alone from there.
The improv, “daisy” format of the evening offered the audience a special connection to both the rep company and to Burkett himself, who acknowledged on numerous occasions the meta-theatrical nature of his own presence in relationship to the puppets. But nothing about that connection could have fully prepared me for how moved I was—and I was not alone—by Edna Rural, the kind-hearted widow from Alberta, recently relocated to Parkdale.
Edna’s time with us was interspersed with old-timey wisdom, like there are just some things that you are better off paying brand name prices for, and deep poetic truths about how what divides us as people is far more superficial than what unites us. Her time was also suffused with deep, deep loneliness. Although Stanley Rural was a gruff Alberta farmer of few words, his loss was among the most felt absences in the room. As she told us the story of Stanley’s death and her subsequent move to Toronto, a spotlight tightened around Edna in her chair, as she sat and listened, along with us, to jazz vocalist John Alcorn sing the a haunting rendition of “Solitude,” tapping her hand to the beat every so often; I was transfixed by this puppet—no, by this woman—and moved to tears.
Is it possible to capture the soul of a human in puppet form? I don’t know. I don’t know what it is that makes the art form seem so vitally important, or why it helps us to feel deeply what may otherwise be difficult to feel. But I do know this: I’m going to keep watching, laughing, and feeling with Ronnie Burkett and his company of marionettes in order to find out.