The young Canadian soldier kneels onstage. Before him lies a Holocaust survivor—naked, skeletal and barely alive. The soldier has just arrived with his liberating army at one of Hitler’s death camps, and wants to help her. But the woman tells him to go away. She considers herself dead, she explains, because she has lost her family. The soldier hesitates, then leans forward to make a promise that will change both their lives. “I’ll be your family,” he gendy tells her while her ghasdy face stares in disbelief The moment is piercing, but what makes it even more astonishing is that these are puppets. And Ronnie Burkett, the man who is speaking their lines, is clearly visible as he manipulates their controls. Yet no one in the theatre seems distracted by the youthfully handsome 43-year-old, so complete is the spell he casts in his newest show, Happy, a tragicomic tale about the residents of a boarding house and their often painful memories. Over the past five years, the Medicine Hat, Alta., native has become Canada’s most explosive presence on the international theatre scene since Robert Lepage (who himself uses puppets in his latest show, The Far Side of
the Moon). Burkett’s earlier full-length plays, Tinkas New Dress and Street of Blood, have won critical and popular acclaim at home and in the United States and Europe. They’ve gathered important prizes even when in competition with actor-based dramas. Wrote one New York critic: “Seeing Burkett’s troupe every few years has become a necessity of civilized theatregoing.” Speaking between shows in the empty lobby of Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre, where Happy is playing until March 3, Burkett exhibits both the candour and tremulous sensitivity that inform so many of his stage characters. “It’s sometimes a bit daunting for me, out there in the real world,” he acknowledges. “The only way I can understand it—not control it—is to shrink it to marionette size and have my discussion that way.” Discussion is the critical word here. Happy is the third instalment of a trilogy that also includes Tinka and Street of Blood, and that examines issues of memory, suffering and the struggle towards
A Canadian puppeteer has garnered wide acclaim
joy. Various points of view seethe through the plays, which have a philosophical undercurrent while remaining undogmatic and, very often, screamingly funny. In fact, Burkett’s work sometimes seems to ride the edge of anarchy, especially when he starts ad-libbing during a performance. But his mastery of a show is total; in fact, Burkett says he tries—through dramatic tension and release—to get the audience breathing with the same rhythm. “That joint breath the audience takes is what makes the characters come alive.”
For most of his career, Burkett has been based in Alberta, where he began performing as a puppeteer when he was only 14. But a new love interest has recently lured him from Calgary to Toronto. Or, as Burkett puts it: “My heart moved here and I followed it.” His priority now is to find a new studioworkshop—a bit tricky, given Toronto rents—as well as establishing a small, informal theatre space where he can continue with the improvisation sessions that were so productive in Calgary. “I just make up 20 or so puppets—politicians, opera-singing cows—and then I read the newspapers of the day and I stand up onstage and see what happens.” Burkett, who can be wickedly satirical, has discovered many of his best characters this way, including Edna Rural, the bigot with the heart of gold who stole the spotlight in Street of Blood. The growing popularity of such figures raises the question: why doesn’t Burkett clone his productions and send several on the road at once? But the puppeteer, who works with only a small backstage crew, swiftly rejects the idea. “I like my little ragtag company the way it is,” he says. “The minute I can’t have my hands on everything, it’s no longer fun.”
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