Now we know what we’ve been missing: fun. Ronnie Burkett’s Daisy Theatre is back at Theatre Network with Little Willy

Little Willy photo supplied by the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

By Liz Nicholls,

It was one of those nights out in the theatre that make you know what you’ve been missing. Fun. Surprise. A feeling you’d have to call wonder — when you wake up the next morning and can’t quite believe what you saw the night before.

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Last night, in a theatre that’s come through fire to rise again, a Canadian artist of dazzling originality returned to us. And, in a vision of delight, Ronnie Burkett brought with him to the new Theatre Network a large and rambunctious ensemble of diminutive but larger-than-life actors we’ve met before, and loved, in other theatrical circumstances. 

The string-puller extraordinaire, who presides from above the stage, lets the company loose, in all their living breathing gesturing  mouthy little 3-D selves, in a bawdy semi-improvised cabaret. With Little Willy, Toronto-based Ronnie Burkett, bona fide son of the prairies, returns to a theatre where he has a history dating back more than three decades. And in this latest from the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, the Daisy Theatre seems to have acquired a hanger-on. It’s William Shakespeare himself, backstage with his famous “very large canon” (Burkett has never met an entendre he didn’t want to double) in his perfect doublet-and-hose. “Bill?? Bill! Get out here….” 

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

The ensemble, who’d arrived at the theatre to premiere Esmé Massengill’s latest musical All Hands On Dick, discover the theatre has advertised Shakespeare, as Canadian theatres are wont to do. There are negotiations. Debbie the Witch has kindly offered to play all three witches in The Scottish Play and been hustled off the stage (“fuck off Debbie!” we chant).

In the end the company scrambles to have a go at Romeo and Juliet. And all the leading ladies of the company, flamboyant femmes d’un certain age exquisitely dressed by costumer Kim Crossley, know a juicy ingenue role when they see one. They clamour to be Juliet.  Collegial, ha! 

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.

Esmé Massengill the“monster diva” (pronouns “me/myself/I”) arrives onstage as snarly and imperious as ever. She’s aggrieved by the sheer inadequacy of our Edmonton-in-winter response to her starry presence, and her “biblical showgirl costume.” She and the ancient French chanteuse Jolie Jolie have a musical duel, composed like all the clever songs by John Alcorn. And the histrionic classicist Lillian Lunkhead, half of a travelling brother-and-sister act fresh from their two-hand Othello in Didsbury, is keen to revisit a youthful triumph as Juliet.  

The plump prairie matron Mrs. Edna Rural from Turnip Corners AB, (the self-styled “silly old biddy in a Sears housedress” and one of Burkett’s most enduringly popular characters), has the Nurse’s role. And in a scene that’s both comical and tender, she sets her ample self down in her favourite armchair to show off her new Naturalizers from the Bay, and to remember her own 62-year history with the undemonstrative Stanley Rural (“He died. (pause) I think.”), by way of guiding Juliet toward womanhood. 

Schnitzel the non-binary fairy we first met in the improvised Daisy shows in Tinka’s New Dress, has a particular purchase on the balcony scene, and can’t see any reason not to be either/or (or both) about Romeo and Juliet. Actually, the balcony scene is a tour de force of complex puppetry with both marionettes below and hand-puppets up there on the hand of “god” above.     

It’s a clever, hilariously wayward entertainment. In a riotous scene the superannuated Vegas entertainer Rosemary Focaccia in a fringed dress and white boots, delivers a showstopper song and dance number of extraordinary brio. How her back-up orchestra of eight union musicians arrives onstage is something for you to enjoy in the moment. Suffice it to say that a willing and charmingly amazed audience member, Katie, came up to the stage to assist on opening night. 

The cast list will vary night to night, as determined by the satirical inspirations of Burkett, who’s a fearless improviser. And so will the length, from 90 minutes to two hours he says at the outset. Naturally “the republic of Alberta” and its notorious backward slide to the right, can expect to take some shots (and Burkett, who’s from Medicine Hat, takes pleasure). Ditto the bereft downtown, the sorry decline of the Bay, the state of Canadian theatre, assorted Edmonton theatres….

On opening night, among other characters, we met the “volunteer stage manager” who’s a librarian by day, and the adenoidal indie singer-songwriter Indy Fret who offers to provide acoustic music for the Capulet’s party. Retired major general Leslie Fukwah puts in an appearance, gorgeously appointed in his late mama’s gown. And Jesus Christ, what’s he doing here? Jesus Christ, I mean. But first, as per Daisy tradition, there’s a striptease by Dolly Wiggler who doffs ’em Elizabethan style, to a particularly amusing Alcorn song.

The marionettes created by Burkett are, as his fans will instantly remember, gorgeously  sculpted, and kitted out in the kind of detail-to-scale — in every glove, pleated skirt, beaded flapper frock, librarian’s cardigan, boot — that leaves you kind of breathless. And perhaps the most astonishing thing about the complex virtuosity that breathes life into marionettes — from the most minute flick of a wrist, tiny shrug, inclination of chin, knee-bend, bum wiggle — is the magical way that extraordinary technique simply disappears from view as you believe the characters. 

With its 14-year-old heroine, R&J is an apt and very funny playground for Burkett’s special fascination, as both artist and artisan, with aging:  eye bags and cheek sags, the way boobs hang and shoulders hunch, the dance moves that creak with time. And his affection for the faded, and sometimes tawdry, old-school showbiz makes for a complex tone, a mix of amusement, mockery, and sweet admiration. 

In these parlous times, the sheer riskiness of inviting game and willing guys from the audience, ready to be shirtless novice puppeteers, turns into one of the funniest scenes of the whole evening. And an uproarious let’er rip good time in the company of a  provocateur becomes a joyful one too. Little Willy is not just an acknowledgment of but an homage to the audience. Burkett not only plays for us, he plays with us, lets us in to the playfulness at heart of it all.

And, as little Schnitzel tells us, with touching gravity, we’re bonded for life. There’s genius in that. 


Little Willy

Theatre: The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Created and performed by: Ronnie Burkett

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: through Saturday


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