Sometimes, if you’ve been good—very, very good—you’ll find yourself unwrapping a totally unexpected Christmas present. And that’s what Vancouver audiences are in for over the next few weeks, once a special seasonal edition of master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett’s Daisy Theatre takes to the stage at the Cultch. Based on Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol, Little Dickens might even be a one-time-only affair.
“You’re not going to see this anywhere else,” says Burkett, reached at home in Toronto.
For one thing, Burkett’s saucy and salacious puppets aren’t necessarily family fare. “You’re not going to see a marionette version, for adults, in a vaudeville style, of A Christmas Carol. You’re not going to see a Christmas Carol that starts with a burlesque strip number, because the Daisy Theatre always starts with a burlesque number,” he explains. “Actually, I have three burlesque numbers, but Dolly Wiggler, our best stripper, has a new winter-themed four-layer thing to peel off, and she’s singing a little-known song that Ella Fitzgerald had recorded—and then promptly buried, once she found out the meaning of it—called ‘Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney’. So that’s how it starts.”
A quick visit to YouTube will reveal that only a truly filthy mind could find anything improper about Fitzgerald’s cheery venture into Christmas jingling, but Burkett has never denied that he has a truly filthy mind. His ability to mix risqué double-entendres with technical expertise has won him fans around the globe—and nowhere more so than right here, which is why we’re getting Little Dickens and, for now, no one else is.
“I thought Little Dickens was the perfect title for a puppet version of A Christmas Carol,” Burkett explains. “So I had that in my head for years, and I thought ‘I’m never going to do that. That’s not the kind of work I do.’ But given the fact that the Daisy Theatre has been at the Cultch four consecutive years, and we’ve been sold-out every time, I realized that it was the only place, really, in the world, where I could pull this off. In order for this to fly, people have to come in knowing who Esmé Massengill is, our faded drunken diva‚ and who Schnitzel, the little fairy boy, is. So for Esmé to play Scrooge, you kind of have to get the joke before it starts.
“So, anyway, I mentioned this to my stage manager, and she said ‘We should do it!’ So I wrote [executive director] Heather Redfern at the Cultch and said, ‘I’ve got this really stupid idea. What do you think?’ And voilà: 12 hours later I had a three-week booking.”
More than a loose adaptation of the Dickens fable has gone into the making of Little Dickens. The Daisy Theatre’s music and sound designer, John Alcorn, has arranged seven classic Christmas songs for the show, new backdrops have been created, and eight new puppets have been carved. Nonetheless, Burkett’s warmly transgressive sense of humour will still have a starring role.
“Regardless of all the fun and filth and frivolity, and the darkness of ghosts appearing and stuff, at the end of the day Christmas Carol is one of my three favourite classic stories, because it has redemption at the end,” the puppetmaster explains. “And that’s the point, really. If you’re going out in December to see a piece of theatre, you really don’t want to feel as depressed as you know you’re going to feel in January. So let’s keep it buoyant!”
The Daisy Theatre presents Little Dickens at the Cultch from Tuesday (December 5) to December 22.More