By Ronnie Burkett. A Cultch presentation. At a secret location on Thursday, February 6. Continues until March 1
Ronnie Burkett has made a career out of expressing himself through lovingly crafted puppets, and for two hours, his audacious new show gives us a rare window into why the art form has engaged him for decades.
That’s because in Forget Me Not, the well-known Canadian artist gives each audience member an expressive, one-of-a-kind papier-mâché-and-fabric hand puppet to operate as part of the show. And with the lights mostly up in the atmospheric secret location for the show, it is fascinating not only to watch other adults blissfully playing with dolls, but to find your own inhibitions come down when you’re acting through the frocked little creature. “Believe me, it’s easier that way,” he says, referring to how this intermediary can allow us to express truths and connect. And what you discover through this interactive show is that he’s right. When he encourages the audience to introduce their “Others” to each other, it’s amazing to watch people “shake hands” and “hug” with total strangers in the room—and it’s inviting enough that it’s not the torture the interactive-theatre-allergic might fear.
Forget Me Not stands out most as an act of unconditional generosity. Burkett, who has made his name bringing to life his marionettes in Tinka’s New Dress and The Daisy Theatre, has never fully hidden himself from viewers. The thrill comes from watching him switch, solo, between a wild array of characters with a variety of colourful voices. But in Forget Me Not, he exposes himself and what he does with a moving abandon. At the end of the night, he asks us to carefully return all our puppets to the chest they came from—not just because to do otherwise would be stealing, but also because “they’re all me”. And by this point in this topsy-turvy show, you’ll know exactly what he means.
Burkett is an acquired taste, mixing the bawdy and the poetic, the macabre and the melodramatic. But for his many fans in Vancouver, the chance to commune with Burkett makes Forget Me Not an unmissable experience. Part of the appeal is the subterranean world that he creates in the secret location (which you find out after you buy your ticket). One hundred audience members are led into a salon outfitted with antique settees, benches, Middle Eastern rugs, and candles. String lights festoon the ceiling, along with love letters clipped to the wires. Burkett is the stern director the audience needs, telling us when to shine flashlights on the puppet scenes he stages, ordering us to gather our hands to form a roadway for the characters, and barks “Maestro!” when he wants one of us to cue the record player at the back of the room. (Composer John Acorn’s retro-carnivalesque jazz has been put on 45s for the show.)
As for the story that unfolds amid all this, it can feel disjointed and drawn out over the two hours. Burkett sets the action in a fantastical (yet familiar) future called the New Now, where reading and cursive writing have been banned, and everyone’s being monitored. An elusive character named She pens love letters for an underground community as an act of resistance. Tangents include the Punch and Judy farce of carnival huckster Zacko Budaydos and his assistant Nutzo Baad juxtaposing with Zacko’s gentle affair with a tattooed lady. Burkett, who separates his real self as “Me” in the show, is grappling with ideas of cultural oppression, the importance of ceremonies, the need for defiance.
Oddly for a Ronnie Burkett show, it’s not so much the warped story that draws us in here. Forget Me Not’s biggest strength is the opportunity not just to move around the room and watch him, up close, do his work, but to have him invite us in. The most affecting scene comes not in the fictional tale he tells but in a finale in which he connects with us through a secret, meaning-loaded hand signal—an inside language we puppeteers have formed between us. That’s the gesture he flashes us, his new confidants, as he disappears down a hall into the night, and it’s a moment that—true to the show’s title—you won’t forget.