When I walked into the Cultch, the greeter immediately warned that the show would be between 100-120 minutes without intermission. I beelined for the bathroom, then to the bar. Not only do they serve beer (and wine) at the Cultch, but they’ll even let you bring it to your seat inside the theatre. This evening was off to a great start.
When the lights dimmed we made our way to our seats and were pleasantly surprised at both the set up and the size. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. When Ronnie Burkett emerged, dressed in all black, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. It seemed everybody knew and loved Burkett already. In his introduction he talked of his past work, which again, the audience seemed to know all about, then explained his objective with the Daisy Theatre. He wanted to create a puppet show for adults that was fun; a departure from his past work, which was decidedly darker.
As far as marionettes go, I’ve only ever seen Pinocchio and Gepetto at work. This was a change of pace for me. The opening number starred Dolly Wiggler, who would dance to music and peel off her clothing one item at a time, burlesque style. I didn’t know marionettes could move like that. I was laughing and in shock, looking over to my friend to confirm that she was seeing this. Her rhythm, as created by Burkett’s hands, which moved quickly without distracting him from the song he was singing, was incredible.
Funny for the most part and provocative throughout, Burkett had the audience laughing and cheering from start to finish. I laughed a lot, but I also cringed some. Especially when Franz was on stage talking too much–at least for my liking–of inviting starry-eyed audience members backstage and humping them from behind while they were distracted by smaller cuter puppet named Schnitzel.
From the applause, to the coos, to the shouts of encouragement everybody seemed to know from the moment the show began that this was a participatory event. The length, I would learn, varies because Burkett invites the audience to hoot, holler and applaud as a way of voting for which puppets or songs they would like to see performed. This was something I quite liked. Quickly it became clear that many of the audience members had seen this play before and were keen to see some of their favourite puppets return to the stage. At one point the lights came on and he looked into the audience for a volunteer. Burkett would settle on a man named Gavin, who would learn how to make a puppet play the piano while bobbing his head to the music–“he” being the puppet. Gavin would also go on to sing on cue and even take off his shirt.
It was a while before I was able to find the connection between these puppets, all telling stories or singing songs that had nothing to do with the others. In a way, it felt disjointed. I’d been in a gambling mood when I decided to see the show without first doing any research about Burkett or the Daisy Theatre, which I would realize part way through was a variety show. Even still, I struggled to make sense of why some of them were performers, while others were just there to tell stories.
In addition to Gavin, the highlights for me were without a doubt Jesus (yes, Christ) and Edna Rural. Neither sang or danced, but rather they talked to the audience. Jesus, who may actually have been performing stand-up routine, was dreading the holidays with his parents Mary and Joseph. His birthday is a tense time and his parents don’t approve of his girlfriend, he explained while weaving clever jokes, with even more clever biblical references into his story. Edna, a widow from a small town in Alberta, is an expert baker, and talks endlessly because she fears that if she’s quiet somebody will give her bad news. Everybody had a good laugh when Edna told the story of her pie crust made with dill, which of course was referred to as dill dough (read: dildo). I’m not a big fan of sex jokes. They’re popular and funny making me a minority on this one, but I can’t help but find them boring and a little too easy.
While I thought two hours was a little too long and the sexual references a little too frequent, I quite liked this play. It was smart, topical and funny. It was also sad, heartwarming and relatable. Burkett is quick-witted and truly a master of his craft. He brought each puppet to life with his voice and movement and that alone makes for twenty dollars well spent. The fact that no two nights are the same, has me curious as to who will grace the stage of the Daisy Theatre in the nights to come. In this regard, it makes sense that this is a show people come back for.
The Daisy Theatre runs until December 20 at The Cultch (1895 Venables Street). Tickets are available by phone at 604.251.1363, or online at thecultch.com.