There are those performers who touch us in ways that we never thought we could be touched. Ronnie Burkett with his marionettes is one of those artists – at least for me – a kind of creative genius (if that category of compliment hasn’t been completely discredited) whose work gets under my skin and makes me feel as if elements of my lives are being played out onstage by the freaky little wooden dolls dangling from his fingers.
I say “lives” because Burkett performs his latest with at least a dozen or so different characters, Burkett creating the voices and onstage personas for all of them while also playing himself – or rather, a cruise ship marionette artist in a mid-career / mid-life crisis. A friend who I described the performance to – someone unfamiliar with Burkett’s work – said that it sounded “creepy”, and there is something not just a little crazy about watching a man inhabit so many different personalities in such a compressed and energetic performance.
Billy Twinkle is a glance backwards through key memories in the life of an artist, a young man growing up in the Canadian prairies with talents and aspirations bigger than the humble opportunities offered in Moose Jaw’s limited cultural world. Twinkle was drawn to puppets at a precociously early age, and sought – no, demanded – the help of one of the great marionette artists of the day. And it is this great artist’s ghost – his old mentor – who comes to haunt Billy at his moment of despair at the beginning of the play and who drives the harrowing trip down memory lane.
Burkett’s mastery is as apparent as it is invisible: the puppets are so lively, without a missed beat or step. The way my attention seamlessly shifted from Burkett, to marionette, to hand puppet all with empathetic interest is a testament to expert puppetteering. Burkett is practically on the run the entire performance, around and around the stage shifting puppets from one hanger to the next in preparation for an upcoming scene, bringing out new ones and putting others to bed.
Only once or twice did Burkett break from script and engage the audience with a little improv banter. His wit in an improvisational setting with audiences has in the past been among the highlights of performance and one of his great charms, and I would have liked more.
The message, here, or rather the story, is about art. Twinkle preambles his moment of crisis by admitting that he doesn’t like puppets any more. An artist at the end of his medium. “I have done everything there is to do,” Twinkle bewails to the rabbit-eared ghost of his mentor.
“Everything in your comfort zone” the angry puppet barks back. Twinkle wants to quit, feeling that he is an arrogant fraud. His mentor will have none of it. “It is true arrogance to not use a talent.”
The old ghost was an puppeteer from another and now bygone era, traveling across the country with his Shakespearean puppet troupe, playing in schools and small theaters. It was a dying profession – “killed by television”, as his mentor says – and his mentor’s dying dream was for a puppetry of great art. Twinkle’s dream was a different colour: young, ferociously talented, queer, hungry for attention, Twinkle set tradition on end and challenged all kinds of stereotypes and limited imaginations. (From Burkett’s biography, his early career as the “bad boy of puppetry” included opening gigs for the The Stranglers with Virtue Falls, a musical that included songs such as “I Love dick”.)
But in this performance – and as it goes it becomes increasingly hard to tell the playwright from the actor from the character from the puppets of the precocious Twinkle – the artist seems to be reaching for something and into Shakespeare’s poetry if not drama for somewhere to stand. The play is an hommage of the greatest kind to the mentor who haunts Twinkle. And in the artist’s struggle to let this ghost go, and to finally rest, it is the dream of an art that encompasses not only the things that dazzle and precociously upset conventions, but a great compassion for the human spirit and elevation of even the most humbling of human experiences to some recognition of transcendent beauty.
I also might have asked for a less pat ending – something darker, more complicated and more befitting the nuanced and edgy aspects of the little wooden creatures that drive this exploration of self and artistry. But this is a quibble. There is much to take home from this performance for anyone wondering about deeper meaning in their lives.