From the moment the story of our Canadian theatre unfurled itself to me during my undergraduate days at Dalhousie University, I have been hearing the excited and reverential rumblings about Saskatchewan’s own puppet master of genius and renown, Ronnie Burkett. I finally revelled in the opportunity to see his newest creation, Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy, which closed on October 31st after an extended run at the Factory Theatre, and I must say, it managed to exceed even my already elevated expectations.
ronnie burkett and sid
Burkett begins as Billy Twinkle, a middle aged puppeteer working on a cruise ship who becomes exasperated by his drunken disinterested audience and, in a moment of fury, commits the cardinal sin of cruise entertainment, shushing the patrons. Twinkle is promptly fired and reaches a devastating conclusion amid a dramatic breakdown and the impulse to throw himself overboard and into the ocean below; he doesn’t like puppets and he doesn’t want to do this anymore. Suddenly, and quite out of nowhere, a cantankerous old hand puppet with bunny ears appears on Billy Twinkle’s arm and wrestles him, through Shakespearean soliloquies, away from the edge of the boat- er- ship. It is soon revealed that the puppet with the bunny ears is a slightly demonic, ghostly spirit of Twinkle’s former mentor, a renowned American puppeteer named Sid Diamond, and he offers our protagonist the opportunity to revisit his past in attempt to rekindle his passion for puppets. Of course, this magical flashback, reminiscent of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, is created as a marionette Vaudeville which springs vibrantly to life, with Burkett manoeuvring all the puppets (which he has also created), giving them their own unique voices and idiosyncrasies and plying the entire stage with genuine old fashioned theatrical magic.
What makes this play so beautiful and so captivating is how Ronnie Burkett is able not only to make his puppets move but how he is able to give them a piece of his heart so they emerge not just as caricatures going through the motions of a song and dance number, but characters that can express feeling and deep, rich emotions. The most heartrending character in the play is the young Billy, filled with idealistic charm, joyful innocence and a blind faith in his own abilities and bright future. There is one particular scene where Billy first encounters Sid and convinces him, while speaking in characteristic Burkett rapidity, to take him as a protégé and teach him all he knows. This fortuitous partnership has a more sinister mirror later in the play when Billy encounters an older man at one of his shows who manages to manipulate the boy back to his hotel room. This scene is charged with lust, with fear, excitement, and creepiness as we see the world begin to encroach on Billy Twinkle’s idealism and sweet naivety. Also compelling is Benji, a far more cynical and bitter young puppeteer that Billy meets at a Puppeteer Fair, whose quirky specificity gives the audience the sensation that he could burst out of his little wooden frame and become a real boy at any moment. Some people have noted Burkett’s penchant toward sentimentality being a little saccharine at times, but I thought that the sweetness was always countered with a strong dose of pessimism and contemptuousness by the more weathered characters of the story. That being said, the play is very much centered on Billy’s quest to reclaim his former hopefulness, the buoyancy that made him an early success, amid a harsh and difficult world.
There is also a great deal of wonder in this tale, from puppets manipulating tiny marionettes of their own, a roller skating bear and a burlesque puppet striptease to a wine loving singer who enjoys exploring her Kunst and one small gentleman who has an inflatable balloon in a rather suggestive place, the audience remains breathless with awe and overwhelmed by the mastery of it and the beauty of the spectacle.
Billy Twinkle- Requiem for a Golden Boy is a marathon for Ronnie Burkett, who lunges onto the stage, fighting with himself and then rushes to a higher plane to play God a little, with utter grace and meticulous artistry. So much breathless joy radiates from Burkett throughout the performance and this ensures that although most of our anchors in this magical world are wooden, there is not a hollow moment, only stardust.