The Daisy Theatre
Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes
The Metro Theatre, Victoria, BC
November 19 to 22, 2015
It had been almost two decades since Ronnie Burkett last took the stage in Victoria. But the city must have left a big impression on him, or else he’s a quick study, because the puppet master of puppet masters sure knew how to touch a nerve or more likely prick a funny bone at the Saturday performance of his madcap improv show, The Daisy Theatre.
“Look,” he said to one of his high-strung, loosely jointed marionettes. “It’s our dream demographic: menopausal women and gay men!”
“No script,” promised Burkett in a cheeky intro expressing surprise at the lively Saturday night audience. No safety net, no doom and gloom, no social message, just a rollicking, raunchy, seat-of-the-pants-falling-below-the-asscrack show from the irreverent and multi-talented Burkett, who has been doing this sort of thing since the 70s. He is puppeteer, puppet maker, performer, writer and who knows what else. The Alberta-born artist did his first show in clubs, wearing a “bag stage.” The entire Daisy Theatre set looks as if it might fit comfortably in a large minivan and it has been on the road since the June 2013 premiere at Luminato.
Daisy Theatre provides Burkett with the opportunity to come out from behind and interact with the audience as well as his marionettes. Not that he was ever a keen observer of the fourth wall.
Slagging the city and the theatregoers of the Garden City, Burkett even took aim at his venue, calling the show “16 inches of fun in a dark church basement.” Never mind. It proved exactly the right intimate setting for Burkett’s in-your-face improv act. There were moments reminiscent of Robin Williams’ verbal and physical hypomania, but it was vintage Burkett.
A fairly serious conversation sets the context for the show. Burkett’s toddler-like little striver Schnitzel gets into an existential dialogue with his/her master, then makes the desperate climb up the curtains to get a good look at the man the audience can see pulling the strings and voicing his puppet’s lines. Schnitzel is the inner actor in all of us, scared to death of being exposed, and yet wanting to cross the line (in front of the stage) where there’s no protection from masks and make-believe.
On the heels of a really tough act to follow, the marionette stripper Dolly Wiggler, Burkett twice gave the audience a chance to pick from three characters he had waiting in the wings. The first choice (by applause) was a bosomy ageing chanteuse with a real Victoria vibe, who resembled a demented Dame Edna and was accompanied on piano by a puppet manipulated in Burkett’s other hand. She sings an obscenely funny “Hey-nonny” tune with lyrics that wouldn’t get past the Internet censors. The second choice brought a meandering, shaggy-dog segment, in which the sweaty-thighed, pie-making widow, Edna Rural of Turnip Corners, Alberta reveals the secret of her “dill-dough.” (Too bad we never got to see Miss Lillian Lunkhead, “Canada’s oldest and worst actress.”)
You get the gist. And before the two solid hours of manic music, monologue and dance has ended we were entertained as well by Tony, the drunken, sleazy lounge singer and Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah who comes on like a Borscht Belt stand-up comic. There were also the sleeping or dead ventriloquist and his dummy Woody, who carries on while his manipulator slumps in the chair.
It’s debatable what constituted the highlight. Perhaps Edna or the fairy child Schnitzel or brave audience member Mark, dragged from his seat and induced to operate the pianist marionette, then remove his shirt (to more applause).
Schnitzel makes the final appearance of the show, which might have been only an hour, Burkett said, if we were too unresponsive. But on it went to the sweaty max, two hours of laughs, a few gasps, a lot of admiring sighs and a few call-outs to come back soon.