Ronnie Burkett is a masterful puppeteer whose show, The Daisy Theatre, is a skit and improv show where the sole performer is Ronnie who has access to a cast of 40 marionettes, each with their own personality, voice and history. Each show is improvised based on how Ronnie reads the room and drawn from experiences that he has in common with the audience, whether those are lived experiences or drawn from the day’s news.
Ronnie Burkett and his artist representation company have published some really interesting and insightful videos on Ronnie’s work, the history of puppetry and its future. Before you see The Daisy Theatre, playing at the Citadel until November 2 and before you read this review, there’s one in particular you should check out:
I find that moment near the end of the video, where Ronnie is talking about Josef Skupa and his performances and their repercussions in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia very moving. (PS – I really enjoyed this blog, which gives a little more background than the Wikipedia article.) When I was in Lyon this summer, the home of the famous puppet Guignol (created by Laurent Mourguet), my perception of puppetry was changed as I learnt about the daily puppet shows that the working class audience adored because they were based on the day’s news. Not just political and social commentary, they made a discernible impact on the political and even cultural landscape of the city – even the language! In researching Ronnie Burkett’s The Daisy Theatre before attending, I noted that Ronnie seemed to be strongly influenced by puppetry traditions like that of Mourguet and (obviously) Skupa.
I didn’t make it to the last incarnation of The Daisy Theatre when it was in town, but my co-worker saw it and loved it. She said it was scandalous, filthy, riotously funny and completely relevant to what had happened in the world, Alberta and Edmonton that day. It was at once a break from the day’s reality and a reflection upon it.
Needless to say, I had pretty high expectations of The Daisy Theatre.
Ronnie Burkett was a joy to be entertained by. Being in the room with someone of that level of mastery of puppetry, expression, performance, and ability to read the room was a great study in theatre. I found though, his performance on opening night wasn’t what I expected, although it was certainly mostly improvised and definitely tailored to the audience.
Ronnie Burkett clearly knows opening night audiences – his comments around Liz Nicholls and Colin MacLean being at the same table and specific comments about the Citadel Theatre and Edmonton were spot on for the audience members who are heavily involved or knowledgeable about the theatre scene and typically attend opening night performances. But that commentary and satire I was expecting was missing, especially since I’m certain any arts-related comments would have resonated with the audience. However, it was the opening night of an improvised show, after all. That’s not to say it was sanitized, watered-down or unintelligent. There’s no way I could say that about a show that starts with a marionette strip-tease and ended with a moving monologue by the most adorable marionette, Schnitzell. I hope to get back during the run to see if that’s just happened to be how that particular night played out.
To briefly comment on the way The Daisy Theatre is performed… I loved how everything from the set, to the audience involvement and participation, to Ronnie’s commentary to the actual marionette performances themselves opened up the process of creating a show to the audience. The fact that you are sitting in the dark (most of the time) watching a performer create a shared experience is not hidden – indeed, he’s made it an important part of the show. We see the scenery change and the props come on stage, we see and hear the marionettes come out from backstage… Ronnie himself even commented on how this particular performance compared to last night’s performance or even the recent Vancouver run of the show. Even if I wasn’t so interested in the process and experience of theatre, I think the way Ronnie doesn’t just break but destroys the fourth wall is incredibly engaging to every type of audience member as it embodies that idea that the show is being created just for you and will never exist in this exact form again, which only enhances the power of live theatre.
The Daisy Theatre plays at The Club at the Citadel Theatre until November 2. Tickets are $31.50 – $42.