By Megan Mooney
Puppets take over a Toronto theatre and impress the crap out of the audience
People have many reactions to marionettes. I’m fascinated by them. I have another friend who is quite literally terrified of them, an honest-to-goodness marionette-phobia. He would not have enjoyed Billy Twinkle Requiem for a Golden Boy playing right now at Factory Theatre because he would have spent the entire time under his chair. I, on the other hand, loved it. Judging on the comments for the people around me as I was leaving the theatre, so did everyone else.
Ronnie Burkett, the creator and performer of the piece, is an established puppet master, I’d say a puppet virtuoso. This means that, as expected, the puppet work was amazing. It is wonderful to watch Burkett manipulate the marionettes, bringing them each to life. It’s easy to forget that you are watching wooden puppets and get lost in the characters as human beings. Even when they have rabbit-ears and a balloon protruding from their body. My show partner Amanda quite accurately said that it was "striking how the fine-tuned genius of the puppets made the show about humanity, not about puppets".
Normally I wouldn’t go into too much detail about the performer or writer of a piece, but in this case it’s a useful exercise to give a picture of the expectations that a Ronnie Burkett project carries with it. I think it’s important because I had high expectations going into the piece and was not disappointed. The Walrus had a great article about Burkett in it’s April 2010 issue called "The Puppet Master and the Apprentice". For me, the passage that most highlights the expectations that Burkett carries with him is this:
Last November, he [Burkett] won the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, which is awarded in turn to a director, a playwright, and a designer over a three-year cycle. Perhaps more telling than his victory, as a designer, is the fact that he is the only person to have been nominated in all three categories.
Enough background, lets get to the show itself. I already said I enjoyed it, and as you can probably guess from her statement about the "fine-tuned genius" that Amanda liked it too. She pointed out that there were a lot less "bells and whistles on the puppets than I would have expected, I liked that". It’s true, there is a subtlety to the puppets that is really impressive. It helps you focus more on the story, the emotions and the delicate movements of each puppet. Amanda said "In the end, it’s all about connecting to the humanness". That’s what keeps the puppets from becoming an impressive gimmick and makes them storytellers.
The piece is completely performed by Burkett, who plays Billy Twinkle, so in some ways it’s a one-man show. Except, Twinkle is rarely the only character on stage, so it falls more into a traditional dialogue play. The show is about a puppeteer performing. And the puppeteer is one of the characters. We see Twinkle as a flesh and blood human on stage, and we see Twinkle as a puppet on stage as the ‘live’ Twinkle recreates his life with puppets.
The juxtaposition of flesh and blood actor with wooden actors provides an interesting dynamic. It gave every bit of the performance more meaning for me. An amusing piece about an old man with bunny ears becomes poignant and takes me from laughing to crying in the matter of milliseconds.
When I asked Amanda what her favourite part, she told me that having worked as an entertainer on a cruise ship before (Twinkle is a cruise ship entertainer) this was the first thing she’s ever seen that manages to encapsulate the imprisonment and vastness of being on a ship. She said she realised that was a kind of odd piece to focus on, since it was only a very tiny part of the piece, but it really struck her. She was impressed with the accuracy and honesty of that.
The show has been playing to packed houses, I highly recommend you follow the crowd to Factory Theatre and check this one out. But, get your tickets soon, I expect this one will sell out quickly.
– Billy Twinkle Requiem for a Golden Boy plays until October 24, 2010 at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St)
– Showtimes are 8pm on Tuesdays to Saturdays, and 2pm on Sundays
– Ticket prices range from $28 – $48 depending on the day you are attending, with the Sunday matinee being PWYC. Discounts are also available for Students, Seniors and Artists.
- More information on tickets available online