Review: ‘Daisy Theatre’ brings its irreverent puppetry back to T.O. Special

Posted Mar 20, 2015 by Jeff Cottrill
Puppetry ain’t kids’ stuff these days, and nobody in Canada knows this more than Ronnie Burkett. If you thought “Avenue Q” was edgy, just wait until you experience the dark hilarity of “The Daisy Theatre”, which returned to Toronto this week.
Schnitzel wants you to know that he loves you very much  in Ronnie Burkett s  The Daisy Theatre .
Schnitzel wants you to know that he loves you very much, in Ronnie Burkett's "The Daisy Theatre".
Alejandro Santiago
Burkett has been performing with marionettes for almost thirty years, but his previous shows have always been scripted. The Daisy Theatre, which debuted at the Luminato Festival in 2013 and played at the Factory Theatre last year, has Burkett largely improvising with his characters at a manic pace – changing the references and gags every night and calling up random audience members to assist – and if all the other performances are anything like Wednesday night’s, you’re in for a wonderful evening of entertainment.
Daisy has more of a campy, cabaret atmosphere than that of a traditional play; audience members are occasionally egged on to react aloud, and the show alternates between musical numbers (it opens with a burlesque bit by a puppet called Dolly Wiggler), sketches and monologues. Burkett’s characters may be grotesque caricatures, yet many of them appear to be drawn from real life, or at least familiar archetypes: there’s Miss Lillian Lunkhead, a Norma Desmond-esque diva introduced as “Canada’s oldest and undoubtedly worst actress”; there’s Edna Rural, an aging, sheltered prairie housewife with the catchphrase, “Lord love a duck!”; there’s Major-General Lesley F—kwad, a British soldier who’s a bit reminiscent of Graham Chapman’s “This is getting too silly!” general; and there’s Schnitzel, a squeaky-voiced, childlike wanna-be fairy with a daisy growing out of his head.
These marionettes are elaborate enough that – as with the Muppets – you’ll find yourself forgetting that they’re not real, living people. One reason is the way in which Burkett operates them; he’s not just moving arms and legs around, but adding more subtle body-language details, from specific head tilts and shakes to the general way the characters carry themselves.
But another reason is the quirks Burkett gives to their personalities. He’s not relying on easy gags, but on character humour. Despite the puppets’ extreme comedic personae, many of them seem to have their own unique dreams and back stories, and their soliloquies often have undertones of sadness and yearning behind the silliness, sometimes even touching upon the tragic or existential. Schnitzel wants to escape the confines of the stage, but can’t always find the courage. A hoarse-voiced old Vegas lounge singer, Rosemary Focaccia, keeps interrupting her own act by hurling verbal abuse at the techs, without a shred of self-awareness. (The cigarette locked in the puppet’s right hand is a nice touch.) Also heartbreaking is an actual puppetry-within-puppetry scene about a sentient ventriloquist dummy, Little Woody Lyndon, who worries about getting sold on eBay when he’s no longer useful.
Another trait that distinguishes The Daisy Theatre from other puppet shows is its unapologetically satirical tone. Burkett can’t resist tossing out catty verbal jabs at the mainstream theatre world – from Soulpepper and Canadian Stage to Martha Henry and Calgary’s audiences, even at the puppets in Avenue Q and War Horse – almost as if he resents being seen as a relative underdog in the community. (He even dismisses the reviewers in the opening-night audience as “bloggers and lesser-knowns.”) It’s hilarious in a biting way, but fortunately, the primary targets in the show are universal human foibles, and every character is bang-on in that respect.
Also a highlight is Burkett’s frenzied performance style – switching between voices and characters and rattling off stream-of-consciousness monologue more quickly than the young Robin Williams on amphetamines. Sometimes it’s a little hard to keep up with him, but it’s a marvel to behold, and you welcome the journey.
As I mentioned off the top, this is definitely not a children’s show. Swearing, dirty puns and alternative sexual innuendo abound, depending on the character; it ranges from Rosemary Focaccia’s relentlessly nasty, filthy mouth to Edna’s unknowing reference to her pickle-flavoured dough recipe as “Dill dough.” But with all the edge and camp, The Daisy Theatre still has more wit, heart and unbridled energy than many “regular” plays you’ll see in this city, even with their flesh-and-blood cast members. Catch it while it’s back.
The Daisy Theatre runs at The Factory Studio Theatre until April 5.