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The Daisy Theatre: Less script makes room for more variety

Ronnie Burkett is photographed in Toronto on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Burkett's new show, The Daisy Theatre, will premiere as part of the 7th Annual Luminato Festival from June 14th to 23rd at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

2.5 out of 4 stars

The Daisy Theatre
Written by
Ronnie Burkett
Ronnie Burkett
John Alcorn
John Alcorn
Luminato Festival

It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights … almost.

Word recently leaked out in Variety that Disney Theatrical Productions has been testing out a stage version of The Muppet Show, causing widespread excitement among fans of Kermit and the gang who have always wanted the chance to watch their favourite characters not on a screen but from Statler and Waldorf's seats.

In the meantime, however, there's Ronnie Burkett, who is way ahead of the curve on the demand for a live comedy-variety show starring puppets. For the 13th production by his cult company, Theatre of Marionettes, Canada's favourite adult puppeteer has taken a break from full-length scripted shows to create a semi-improvised cabaret called The Daisy Theatre, currently getting a 10-night tryout as part of Toronto's Luminato Festival.

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The Muppets certainly came to mind at the performance I saw – especially when very special guest star John Alcorn, the human jazz singer and composer, came onstage to perform while Edna Rural, a 12-inch high prairie widow resurrected from Burkett's 1998 show Street of Blood, tapped her hand along to the beat in a tiny armchair nearby.

It's not Jim Henson who provided the inspiration for The Daisy Theatre, however, but underground shows performed by Czech puppeteers under Nazi occupation. These anti-fascist "Daisies" were also the inspiration for Burkett's 1994 international breakthrough, Tinka's New Dress – a play that demonstrated to North Americans how puppetry could be used to explore adult themes around the same time Art Spiegelman did a similar thing for graphic novels with Maus.

Karel Capek, the Czech playwright famous for coining the word "robot," wrote plays for Daisies – and Burkett has likewise enlisted 10 top Canadian playwrights to pen 10-minute plays for his "repertory company" of wooden performers (some familiar, some new) including Brad Fraser, Daniel MacIvor and fellow Siminovitch Prize winner Joan MacLeod.

At the performance I caught, Anusree Roy's Wedding Date was the play du jour – and the playwright was on hand to help voice one of the characters in this amusing sketch about an overprotective Indo-Canadian father following his daughter on a date. (Burkett had tried performing it earlier on his own, he told the audience, and felt he sounded too much like Apu from The Simpsons.)

Burkett has no brown puppets in his company, so Wedding Date involved a kind of colour-blind puppet casting. Indeed, the main problem with The Daisy Theatre was a lack of puppet diversity – the show was overbooked with faded divas.

Jolie Jolie, an aging chanteuse in pink boa who sings with a younger version of herself, is an intricately crafted delight down to her delicate, slender legs, performing alongside an eight-member band cranked out of the floor of the stage by an audience volunteer. But her schtick felt like a bit of overkill, given we had already spent 10 minutes in the company of Esmé Massengill, an aging star of the silver screen, and Leslie Fuqwar, an aging major-general who sings the old songs in drag.

More variety in this variety show came from Schnitzel, a little boy with a flower growing out of his head. He dreams of becoming a fairy, though he has not been given any wings by his creator – and provided a touching through-line to the evening.

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Though The Daisy Theatre held the promise of political puppet theatre, Burkett's performance wasn't terribly topical the night I was there – aside from an off-colour joke about Madeline Porterhouse, a rich cow who wears Jimmy Moos, being photographed with a couple of "black Jerseys" on Dixon Road.

As the show is partly improvised and the playlets change, the results over the course of the run will vary. While it will no doubt be a treat for Burkett's superfans to reconnect with characters like Esmé and Edna – one, I heard, had come from the United States for the week in order to see all 10 performances of The Daisy Theatre – the show could use a little more structure for the rest of us, perhaps a single puppet host to tie the evening together. And I would have preferred two playlets to just one.

The show is not ideally suited to the Berkeley Street Theatre, either – the format calls for a cabaret space. It should fit perfectly in the new club at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre, where it will play from September to November. Presumably by that point, Burkett will have worked out the kinks in this ambitious experiment.

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