Photo; GCTC affiche.
Knowing that this is a vaudeville style puppet show, and even knowing Ronnie Burkett’s work, there’s no preparing for what you might experience at The Daisy Theatre. Playing at the GCTC until December 18, this show may look like and feel like a delightfully nostalgic puppet show, but there’s no doubt that it will manage to subvert your expectations and leave you on the butt of a zinger or two (likely more). Fueled by Burkett’s wit and armed with a roster of 44 marionettes, there is no saying what exactly might happen on that stage.
The deal is that if we have fun, he’ll have fun. It’s an enticing enough prospect to get everyone to loosen up a little while we wonder what Burkett has in store. The first puppet sets the stage: A beautifully crafted string marionette in a floor-length gown who proceeds to tantalize the audience through a burlesque performance where she sings in a raspy voice while stripping down to her thong.
Throughout the performance, Burkett pulls his audience in by breaking out of his role as the passive puppet master. Then, when you’re charmed and off-guard, he lands a whopper of a jab, coyly managing to incriminate the whole audience. It’s a true talent.
Under the mask of comedy, we can get away with a lot. The Daisy Theatre will certainly make you howl with laughter, and if you listen for it, you can hear the anger, struggle and heartbreak just under the surface of Burkett’s provocative humour. This show chooses improvisation and reaction over a set script, which means that no two audiences—even in a single run—will experience the same show. The end product is a hyperbolic representation of Burkett’s own reactions to the news of the day, amplified and contorted through the puppets he presents on stage.
It’s a nod to an important tradition in puppetry: Subversion and political commentary. Be it traditional street puppetry like Punch and Judy, or contemporary work from companies like Bread and Puppet Theatre, puppetry is often a medium that allows artists to delve into dangerous territory. Is it the inherent silliness of the puppet that allows it to get away with so much more?
Burkett has said of The Daisy Theatre that it is inspired by the underground, anti-fascist puppet shows in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation. These performances, called “daisies” managed to elude the authorities through the use of humour and allegory; they weren’t outwardly political and yet they managed to be distinctly critical of the political authorities. It’s a delight to see this tradition work its way onto the stage in Ottawa, and Burkett does a fair job of shocking his audience out of complacency. There’s something so delightfully nostalgic about the use of vaudeville and puppets. Though the show is sentimental and wistful at times, it’s also sharply forward-facing.
Stylistically, the puppets each demonstrate a high level of realistic detail from construction to costume. They are so elegantly built. Burkett’s command of the puppets can be quite minimal due to the craftsmanship apparent in each one; they not only come to life, but do so with bright personalities.
This show is great fun and yet, an incredibly intimate offering from Burkett. He is purely the puppet master, conjuring up characters who nimbly react to current headlines and stumble headlong into some really naughty topics. These puppets may have their own distinct craftsmanship, personalities and voices, but are fueled by improvisation and Burkett’s own sense of justice and truth. This is the thinnest veil that Burkett may ever wear on stage.
Like the characters in The Daisy Theatre, Burkett has lived his life in theatres, performing on main stages and dusty, non-traditional spaces. The show jabs at centennial theatres like the NAC who pigeonhole Canadian culture, pokes fun at regional theatre venues, openly mocks Stratford Festival culture, and more. But it’s not only theatre culture that is the object of Burkett’s fun. Each joke, each puppet, becomes an outlet for his reflection about our society, taboos, and politics.
This is the type of show that deserves a residency somewhere where Burkett’s puppets can twist the headlines to their will night after night. Burkett is known for his mastery as a puppeteer, but in The Daisy Theatre, he shows a keen insight into human nature, managing to leave us all a little more exposed than when we first sat down.
The Daisy Theatre plays at the GCTC in Ottawa until December 18. Tickets at gctc.ca.
Ronnie Burkett: Creator and performer
Terri Gillis: Production Manager/Artistic Associate
Crystal Salverda: Stage Manager
John Lambert: Associate Producer
Ronnie Burkett: Marionette, costume and set design
John Alcorn: Music and sound design
Kim Crossley: Costumes
Angela Talbot, Gemma James-Smith, Marcus Jamin, Jesse Byiers, with Gil Garratt and Martin Herbert: Puppet Builders
Robin Fisher and Camellia Koo: Shoes and Accessories
Luman Coad: Marionette Controls
Robbie Buttinski and Daisy Padunkles: Majordomos