Billy Twinkle short on plot but still impressive

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      By Ronnie Burkett. A Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes production. Presented by the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, and Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad. At the Waterfront Theatre on Tuesday, January 20. Continues until February 8

      The story doesn’t really work. Amazingly, that doesn’t matter much.

      In his new solo show, Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy, Toronto artist Ronnie Burkett tells the tale of a middle-aged cruise-ship puppeteer. Already at a low point in his career, Billy gets fired for shushing a talker in the audience and is about to jump overboard when the ghost of his former mentor, Sid Diamond, appears in the form of a sock puppet and forces him to watch as marionettes enact scenes from Billy’s life.

      The first meeting between the crusty Sid and the naively ambitious 15-year-old Billy is touching. Adversarial and tender with each other, they are obviously both true artists.

      Other plot points are shakier. Billy and Sid argue about whether puppets are extensions of their manipulators or distinct characters, and whether they’re alive or simply objects. The play’s crisis comes in an argument about how best to perform Shakespeare with marionettes. Puppeteers might care about these questions. I think I’m safe in saying they don’t create a lot of dramatic tension for most of us. Eventually, Billy gets his artistic mojo back, but the reasons for that are also limp.

      Still, the 110 minutes of this show pass quickly, mostly because Burkett is such an impressive technician. Billy performs bits of his nightclub act, and the opening number, in which a marionette stripper named Rusty Knockers disrobes entirely, is astonishing.

      Throughout, little grace notes breathe life into the exquisitely carved wooden performers: the way Rusty leans back into Burkett’s leg between doffing articles of clothing, for instance, and her heavy lids rise and fall, expressing her supreme boredom. Then there’s the moment when one of Sid’s wee arms strokes Billy’s forehead. At this point, Burkett is animating Sid with just one of his fingers, and he entrances the entire theatre.

      Burkett has also created a number of tremendous characters, including Billy’s pal Benjy, who starts out as a phlegm-plagued, redheaded nerd, and morphs into a punked-out puppeteering superstar. There’s also a fantastically irreverent bit that involves a crucified, Muppetlike Jesus.

      The production elements—including Burkett’s set, Kevin Humphrey’s lighting design, and John Alcorn’s music—couldn’t be stronger. A compelling story would have made the evening stunning. As is, it’s still impressive.