Ronnie Burkett's hilarious puppets vibrate with life in The Daisy Theatre

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      Marionette, costume, and set design by Ronnie Burkett. Music and lyrics and sound design by John Alcorn. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Tuesday, March 21. Continues until April 9

      For the fourth time, Calgary’s Ronnie Burkett has brought his puppet show The Daisy Theatre to Vancouver, and its popularity has probably been something of a head-scratcher to the uninitiated. It was popular, yes, obviously, but how good could a bunch of strings really be?

      Well, pretty damn great. Burkett delivers hilarity and vulgarity, catharsis and pathos, all via papier-mâché. His characters are the stuff of brilliant sketch comedy—vivid, detailed, real—with a distinct voice and speech pattern for each one. But the real marvel is the way in which he embodies them through their small forms: finely sculpted and attired and full of movement, the puppets vibrate with life, even though the audience can see Burkett the entire time.

      The Daisy Theatre is apparently a different experience every night. Burkett has a host of puppets and characters and he mixes it up so no two shows are the same. This performance, which coincided with World Puppetry Day, opened with a sexy cabaret singer on a swing crooning a highly suggestive number with lyrics like “I’ll take your bird in my hand and two in the bush!” As she swings higher, her legs pump faster, and it’s a thing of beauty to see this kind of specificity throughout the show. (Running times vary between 90 and 120 minutes.) An elderly woman struggles to walk with her walker. An old man pushes a broom. A country singer’s stride is as wide-legged as if the horse were still between her thighs. Burkett’s attention to detail is exquisite.

      He’s also a charming, funny, outlandish personality. Whether that’s the man himself or another character for The Daisy Theatre, it’s hard to say. What does shine through is that for all the bawdy jokes and F-bombs, Burkett’s world, like so many, has been reshaped in the last several months as Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, and misogyny have more openly infiltrated American politics and, specifically, the White House. Amid the broad humour and laugh-out-loud moments, Burkett explores real fear—political, social, emotional—in tangible, heartbreaking ways, even if the setting seems absurd. (A ventriloquist’s dummy having an existential crisis is genuinely devastating, as are both appearances by Schnitzel, a fairy with no wings.)

      The only thing that falls flat is an elderly character’s mildly racist “joke” about Vancouver’s Asian population. Thankfully, the audience was audibly displeased. It’s a tone-deaf misstep in an otherwise empowering, thoughtful, and rib-crunching evening by a true puppet master.