A Marionette Show that Overflows with Heart and Humour
You can get away with saying pretty much when it comes out of the mouth of a puppet. Puppetry is freeing because it allows you to suspend disbelief and animate your stories in a way that separates them from humanity. And that’s where many puppeteers stop.
What sets Ronnie Burkett apart is that, while he fully takes advantage of the freedom that his marionettes provide, he imbues them with a humanity and depth of character that exceeds the range of many flesh-and-blood actors.
The Daisy Theatre is largely a one-man production — with the odd assist from the crowd and his stage manager. But that one man is able to populate an entire variety show with multiple characters, acts, songs, and performances. Each character has its own personality, voice, and mannerisms — and they’re all expertly manipulated by Burkett’s skillful hands.
This is a show that forces you to pay attention. Though set in the McManus Theatre, the action is, for the most part, concentrated in a four-foot-square area on the stage. The intimate seating lets you lean into the production, ignoring the surroundings to focus on the puppets themselves, their stories, and their actions.
It is in the subtleties that Burkett’s genius is revealed. A simple interlude where a marionette of an old woman ambles across the stage using a walker is breathtaking in its attention to detail and the appreciation of the skill behind it. From a pianist pushing out his tails before sitting on a piano bench to a burlesque performer languidly kicking out her leg whilst riding a swing, the subtlety of movement shines in an over-the-top production.
The marionettes themselves are works of art. They are exquisitely crafted and detailed — from a Jesus (who kind of looked like an under-the-influence Bradley Cooper) to an adorably sweet-but-grotesque childlike creature named Schnitzel, each character was wonderfully refined.
But what is most amazing is the way that Burkett takes these characters, with their fixed expressions and limited range of movement, and project feelings and emotions from them. Though most characters’ faces don’t move, in watching them you feel they’re talking and emoting. Subtle movements of a character’s head convey far more than mere words and show that Burkett has an incredible understanding of human expression and movement. A flick of his wrist can release more depth of character than some human actors are capable of showing.
This is what sets this show apart from other puppet shows. Please don’t think of this as a Jeff Dunham type of show. If anything, it harkens back to the Wayland Flowers and Madame era of puppetry — both in terms of content and in terms of characterization. But it is done on a much smaller scale, with far more dexterity and subtlety than any ventriloquist act.
The Daisy Theatre is a saucy, vaudevillian type of show. Yes, there is ribald humour throughout. Yes, there are cutting zingers, double-entendres, and belly-laugh inducing stories, songs, and jokes. But there’s also a tremendous amount of heart, warmth, and emotion. In fact, there are moments, such as when a dummy pleads for compassion for his failing ventriloquist, that are almost heart-wrenching.
These may be papier-mâché puppets, but The Daisy Theatre and its cast of characters are filled with soul.