Wednesday night: The curtain has barely been opened and Ronnie Burkett is taking a clever verbal shot at L’Oreal, Luminato’s official partner in creativity and, in a sense, his employer.
I’d call that an auspicious beginning for The Daisy Theatre, this part-improv, part-scripted marionette cabaret, running for all 10 nights of the festival at the Berkeley Street Theatre. Especially with Luminato’s co-founder and chairman, Tony Gagliano, in the house.
In fact, the more acidic and provocative Burkett is, as the man who manipulates the ensuing parade of puppets – among them, old favourites Franz and Schnitzel, faded Hollywood star Esme Massengill, and prairie widow Edna Rural – the funnier he is.
Senator Pamela Wallin, Olivia “Holier than” Chow, and Rob Ford are among the targets of his political satire. Soft targets, to be sure, but all the blows land.
He also milks some nice laughs from Dan, an audience volunteer asked to help pull the strings, literally, of Major-General Leslie Fuqwar, an old Blood and Empire type who likes to sing in drag. In this instance, it’s a song based on the poem There are Fairies at the Bottom of my Garden, which Burkett manages to lace with gay double-entendres.
What doesn’t work, at least on this night, is the playlet he’s commissioned. Written by the normally redoubtable Karen Hines, it features another member of Burkett’s extensive puppet cast, a talking cow. Here, the cow seems to be trying to justify a decision not to have calves, but seems ambivalent. It’s a dark piece, but not in a good way. You can feel the entire atmosphere of the room shift awkwardly. The laughs are gone, replaced by a heavy silence. The play, ostensibly, is 10 minutes long, but ends after five. Did Burkett read the mood, I wonder, and cut it short?
He finds safer, familiar ground with Edna Rural. Her later-life relocation – from her farm in Turnip Corners, Alta., to Toronto’s Parkdale (because Edmonton has a Jewish mayor and Calgary a Muslim mayor) – seems contrived, but her nostalgic recollections of her late husband, Stan, are touching. Just while Edna is nursing a drink at the local pub, bassist Steve Wallace and jazz singer John Alcorn emerge from the wings. The lights on Burkett’s stage darken, and the two musicians ease into Eubie Blake’s haunting ballad Memories of You. A perfect song for the moment and about as perfectly rendered as you could hope for.
A hard act to follow. And the puppets that do, a devil-may-care, devil-in-training character named Murray Toifel (I’m guessing at the spelling) and obese opera singer Ina Klein, never quite recapture the high ground.
So it’s a strange pastiche, this Daisy Theatre. Entertaining, as every Burkett show is – he won a standing ovation – it still leaves me with a wish that he’d raise the ante on political humour. Burkett certainly can write scathingly when he wants to. Take off the long, velvet gloves and give offence, seriously.