Puppetry at its most meta. Photo by Trudie Lee.
If you’ve never seen one of Ronnie Burkett’s puppet shows, you absolutely owe it to yourself to book a ticket to Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy, which opened last week at Factory Theatre. For the uninitiated, Burkett is an internationally respected and award-winning puppeteer who’s made a career out of writing and performing (and creating the marionettes for) adult puppet shows. We’re not quite in Meet the Feebles territory, but Casey and Finnegan this ain’t. Think along the lines of what John Cusack’s character was up to in Being John Malkovich, and you’re close.
Since Jim Henson rose to fame in the ’70s, Muppet-style hand puppets have defined much of the puppeteering scene, but Burkett boldly strikes out against this trend, using old-fashioned marionettes (there’s even a not-so-subtle dig at the Henson style in Billy Twinkle, thanks to the existence of a heavily mocked character who proudly puts on shows with a homemade Muppet Jesus). But don’t worry, die-hard Kermit fans: we promise this is still a show for you. Burkett’s generally considered a national treasure, and his strength lies in combining virtuosic puppeteering and an encyclopedic knowledge of old school puppet show tricks with brilliantly realized characters (packed full of adult neuroses) often engaged in uncomfortable social situations.
Although Burkett animates and performs the voices for all the puppets in his shows, he typically takes a back seat to his creations. In Billy Twinkle, things happen a little differently. Burkett himself plays the titular Billy, using his actual body instead of a wood-and-string creation (although some of his impressive physicality intentionally recalls puppet-esque movement).
Billy is a quasi-successful puppeteer (what a coincidence!) who pays the bills by putting on tacky puppet shows as nighttime entertainment on cruise ships. Until he loses his job, that is, at which point Billy is prepared to throw himself overboard. Everything goes a bit It’s a Wonderful Life when the ghost of Billy’s mentor Sid (now personified as a goofy-looking hand-puppet with rabbit ears) appears on the scene, although whether he’s there to save Billy’s life or just really piss him off is up for debate.
With Sid’s guidance, Billy revisits all the major events in his life—and here’s where the marionettes come out. Every single figure from Billy’s life, including himself in many different ages, in beautifully rendered in the form of a unique, idiosyncratic marionette. And, thanks to the show’s self-reflexive subject matter, Burkett really gets the chance to show off his tricks. From a roller-skating bear, to a sexy stripper, to a drunken lady whose wine actually vanishes throughout the course of her musical number, Burkett enchants with time-honoured and brilliantly executed examples of puppetry and stage magic. And that’s without even mentioning the times where he innovates—how often have you seen a marionette that controls with its hands another fully operating marionette? And the set (which Burkett designed himself, naturally) is one of the most gorgeous things you’re likely to see any performer on, flesh or wood.
Where Billy really shines, though, is in its characters. It’s impossible not to be moved by the developing young puppeteer, his crotchety high-brow mentor, Billy’s over-the-top and needy boyfriend, or the terminally hack-ish puppet festival groupie who’ll give anything to perform her puppet Jesus routine. And it’s hard to forget scenes like the one in which a fifteen-year-old Billy, wearing a cast-off figure skating outfit, meets a much older man after one of his shows and agrees to go back to his hotel room. It’s a moment that would be distractingly awkward to stage with live actors, but somehow, through the distance of the puppets, comes across as sad, scary, exciting, tender, and devastatingly real all at once.
Burkett has found in his marionettes what the Greeks found with their masks, the Balinese with their Wayang Kulit shadow puppets, and the Japanese with their Noh theatre: a way to access the deepest reserves of pathos through an abstraction and imitation of the human face.
Billy Twinkle runs until October 24.