Meet the Marionettes
In his narrative essay “On the Marionette Theater,” the German Romantic poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist suggests that marionettes exhibit a certain inherent grace onstage—in contrast to the awkwardness and inhibitions of human performers. This season, the art of marionette theater seemed like an apt medium for reflecting on the cultural force of nostalgia—that distorting pang felt for a more innocent time, when things were simpler. But were they really?
Master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett shares some of his favorite creations for his production of The Daisy Theatre. Photos are by Alejandro Santiago.
ESMÉ MASSENGILL is a faded star of stage and screen, a tyrant, a villain, a drunk, a whore, a bully, and a goddess. Calling Esmé an actress would be like calling the Pope religious; Esmé IS the theater. She’s my inner diva released, a drag show on strings, a stream of consciousness rant on show business and critics, and more fun to perform than should be legally allowed. This bastard “love child of Tallulah Bankhead and Mr. Magoo” reminds me constantly how silly, vulgar, dangerous, and ridiculous puppetry can—and should—be.
MRS. EDNA RURAL from Turnip Corners, Alberta, is easily one of the most beloved of The Daisy Theatre cast. Her salt-of-the-earth, simple, and always somewhat confused interpretation of the world around her is unabashedly Canadian: judgmental, generous, kind, and narrow, all at once. Her catchphrase, “Lord love a duck,” was something my own mum always said, so while it would be easy to just make Edna a cartoon or the brunt of a joke, this character always reminds me of where I’m from. So, I tend to honor Edna for all her funny foibles, and I think this is why she is an enduring and endearing character who connects so strongly with audiences.
SCHNITZEL, the little fairy boy without wings, is a fan favorite, and regardless of the antics of any given Daisy show, Schnitzel’s goodnight to the audience closes every show. He is a gift to me, a totally innocent character whose musings about life and desire to fly seem to connect with audiences and keep me honest onstage (albeit while talking in falsetto through a small marionette).
MEYER LEMON and LITTLE WOODY are my loving nod to vaudeville, which The Daisy Theatre format borrows heavily from. These are two of my favorite characters, although, oddly, I consider them one marionette. Even stranger, I have a personal phobia about ventriloquist dummies and can’t be near them. But I have never seen a marionette ventriloquist act and loved the challenge of creating it. Meyer and Woody joined the cast as part of the specialty acts in rotation but have become a favorite routine for both audiences and me, and they appear in almost every performance now. I still can’t stand ventriloquist dummies, but I love my Little Woody.
JOLIE JOLIE and ROSEMARY FOCACCIA are two acts which alternate in our final number of the show with The Daisy Theatre pit band. Jolie (top) is fierce and French, a faded rose from the heyday of Parisian cabaret, and Rosemary is a warhorse from the stages of Vegas. Jolie is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking in her battered romantic haze, and Rosemary is as vulgar and brash as the town she plays. The Daisy Theatre has many acts from all sides of entertainment—country music, opera, jazz, burlesque, cabaret, and music hall—and these two characters are part of my endless fascination with, and homage to, the many facets of the glittering jewel of the stage.
Related Event: Nov 15-19
Bing Concert Hall Studio
Ronnie Burkett's The Daisy Theatre