Little Willy: the great marionettist Ronnie Burkett is back, with the raucous Daisy Theatre ensemble, and Shakespeare

Who will play Juliet? The battling divas of The Daisy Theatre in Little Willy, chanteuse Jolie Jolie and Esmé Massengill, in Little Willy. The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Ronnie Burkett is back. 

Call it a reunion, or maybe a homecoming. The show that opens Wednesday at the Roxy for four performances marks the return to this theatre town, and to Theatre Network, of a Canadian artist like no other. A true original: marionettist/ playwright/ actor/ designer/ artisans aren’t exactly thick on the ground anywhere in the world.

With Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes is back at the Edmonton theatre — which is to say a beautifully rebuilt version of that theatre — where six of Burkett’s multi-character plays, with their big casts of diminutive actors, have a history. And a devoted following.

Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

And this time, Shakespeare himself is hanging around backstage, angling for a part. In Little Willy, with its saucy Burkettian title, the Bard might be up against it. The raucous Daisy Theatre, a vaudevillian-type cabaret ensemble some 40 puppets strong, has their way with Romeo and Juliet, improvising as they go. And all the leading ladies of the company, including the aging diva Esmé Massengill, burlesque star Dolly Wiggler, and Lillian Lunkhead (half of the brother-sister duo of “Canada’s oldest and worst actors, who’ve been touring the provinces for 70 years”) are hot for the lovestruck ingenue role. 

Audience faves, like Mrs. Edna Rural, the plump matron from Turnip Corners AB, and the charming fairy child Schnitzel have supporting roles. The former plays the Nurse; she dispenses marital advice from the stronghold of her favourite armchair. Schnitzel dreams of playing either Juliet or Romeo, or both.

Why Romeo and Juliet you ask? “I wanted something most people might have some grasp on,” says Burkett,”Like A Christmas Carol, everyone thinks they know it: ‘miser, night of three ghosts, has to be redeemed, little boy with crutch, God bless us every one. End of story’.” 

“With Shakespeare I didn’t want to alienate the Saturday night date crowd, thinking they’re not smart enough…..” Thanks to high school, most of us get the gist. “Boy meets girl, opposing families, can’t be together, get together, both die. End of play’. 

Burkett laughs. “I had to know the plot points I was skipping over…. You’ve got to know the material in order to (a) ignore it or (b) fuck with it.”

The set-up, Burkett explains, is that the Daisy Theatre performers arrive at the theatre thinking they’re doing Esmé’s new musical. “But the theatre has advertised that they’re doing Shakespeare. So they’re thrown into mayhem. And the divas start fighting over who gets to play Juliet. It’s pretty loose (laughter)!” And since Shakespeare is there anyhow, he’s after the ingenue role, too, since, what the hell, the Elizabethan stage was a men-only proposition.  

“The company knows about as much about Shakespeare as the average audience member,” Burkett says. “Ah, except Esmé, who has superior knowledge. ‘I know Shakespeare! I dated him’.”   

Little Willy is not The Daisy Theatre’s first X-rated venture into the classics. Little Dickens, in which the ensemble assails A Christmas Carol — with Esmé as Scrooge, haunted by the ghost of her showbiz nemesis Rosemary Focaccia — sold out its most recent run at CanStage this past Christmas. “Are there no dinner theatres?” thunders Esmé at the two charitable people collecting on behalf of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. “Are there no touring children’s theatre productions?”

And now Shakespeare. Burkett had actually been thinking about doing “a straight-ahead Shakespeare play” until his long-time production manager Terry Gillis talked him out of it. Theatre presenters unanimously reinforced Gillis’s thought. “When things opened up and they started booking again, everybody said, ‘could we have a version of the Daisy? It’ll get bums in seats’.” 

And they were right. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve done,” says Burkett cheerfully. “And it’s been outrageously well received, an amazing reaction from theatres and audiences.… That’s the thing, first let’s get people back in the theatre having fun.”

Little Willy comes to Edmonton from a sold-out three-week world premiere run at the Cultch in Vancouver and a trio of sold-out weekend performances at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary. After TN, the tour includes dates at Victoria’s Intrepid Theatre, Stanford University in California, Le Diamant in Quebec City and the Centaur in Montreal. It’s a tour Burkett didn’t see coming, given the pandemic givens. “No one was more surprised than me….”  

“Ha!, my first comeback tour!,” he says, as that unmistakeable laugh rumbles across the phone from Vancouver last week. 

Burkett spent last year building another show, “a hand puppet salon show” called The Loony Bin. “At the beginning of the pandemic I didn’t know when and how we’d go back to work…. So I figured I’d better have a small show that fits in a car, a show I can set up myself… like when I was a teenager touring in Alberta (the Medicine Hat-born puppeteer hit the road at 14).  So I built 18 hand puppet characters and a little stage that would fit in your living room. I control lights and sound.”

He has another “big scripted show” in the works, Wonderful Joe, about an old man and his dog. But the time, out of joint as it is, seemed more propitious for something lighter and giddier.  

Little Willy photo supplied by the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

In Daisy Theatre tradition, there’s lots of (masked) audience interaction. As always, Dolly Wiggler starts the show with a strip number, this one with Elizabethan top notes, cue the recorder and lute before it all goes brassy. It’s one of the the five new songs created for Little Willy by composer/ lyricist/ pianist/ musical arranger John Alcorn, Burkett’s real-life partner. And it mirrors the structure of Shakespeare’s opening prologue in the play, Burkett points out. Alcorn’s little song for Schnitzel at the end has the same structure as the final stanzas of the play, too. “Yup, Mr. ‘I know nothing about Shakespeare’ Alcorn got up to speed pretty quickly.” 

For a self-producing artist the pandemic that dragged on and on posed a couple of crucial and related questions. “(a) how do I re-boot? and (b) do I want to? A year off was nice; I’d never have taken a sabbatical otherwise. But almost three?” 

Ronnie Burkett

Burkett emerged from his Toronto studio in the most dramatically fraught way possible in COVID-ian times. He took his play Forget Me Not to Europe last May (it ran at the Fidena Festival in Bochum, Germany). It’s a show “for 100 people max” built on audience interaction: “everybody gets a hand puppet, as a sort of Greek chorus, and I’m right in the middle of them….” Disinfecting hand puppets after every use isn’t in any puppeteer manual. “So we had everyone pre-glove, a condom for the hand.” 

Right after that, he rented a car, drove to Montreal, and did The Loony Bin for a week at The MIAM, in a tiny and beautiful new international marionette centre there. “Such a nice way to meet the public again … a sort of hand-puppet Daisy Theatre in a way, totally improvised.” 

And now, as the only member of the company whose head isn’t made of wood and papier mâché, Burkett is on the road with the Daisy Theatre, named in honour of the subversive underground puppet shows in Prague during the Nazi Occupation. And come Wednesday, as the headliner at TN’s new contemporary adult ‘Another F!#@$G Festival’ (as yet to be officially named, by theatre-goers), Burkett is “really happy” to be back at a company that’s been, he says, seminal to his career, . When Awful Manors premiered at the Roxy in 1990, a gothic romance-thriller murder-mystery musical with 17 characters and 43 marionettes, Theatre Network was, as he has said, his first “legitimate” stage after the Fringe.

Tinka’s New Dress, Street of Blood, Happy, and Provenance (which premiered here in 2003) all played the Roxy — plays that changed the course of Burkett’s career, and claimed for puppets something they hadn’t had in Canada, a rightful home in the adult theatre.

Much has changed since 2003, to be sure, not least that the Roxy burned to the ground in 2015 and has risen again on that very 124th St. footprint seven years later. Burkett brings with him vivid memories of seeing long queues outside the Roxy doors, and watching people rush into the theatre and down the aisles to throw their parkas down and claim a spot. Wait till Burkett and his company see the new Roxy bathrooms. 


Little Willy

Theatre: The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Created and performed by: Ronnie Burkett

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: Feb. 8 through 11



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