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Puppets win hearts at Melbourne Festival


Review by Carol Middleton

Published Oct 02

Tinka's new dress

George Fairfax Studio

Victorian Arts Centre

18 October (Melbourne Festival 2002)

Even the parking ticket officer at the Victorian Arts Centre had heard the news: Tinka’s new dress was a success. When I saw the Canadian one-man show on the second night, I knew I was in for a treat. Over the next two and a half hours, as Ronnie Burkett spun his magic with his Theatre of Marionettes, I was entranced by this craftsman, writer, actor and comedian, both sensitive artist and bold entertainer.

A gentle giant of a man, Burkett manipulates the exquisite marionettes he has crafted by hand with a love and delicacy that is testament to the 38 out of his 45 years that he has devoted to his calling. Dressed in dark clothes, his presence ranges from discreet to distinct, as walks his creatures across the stage, or helps Tinka gently with her tiny dress. At times though, he can explode into action through his characters, which then become like natural extensions of his hands.

The stage setting is itself enchanting, a revolving carousel set in a circular stage, with the marionettes suspended or sitting on circus animals. As the scenes change, Burkett kneels down to give the carousel a gentle spin, stopping it again to lift down the next lot of puppets due on stage. We are focusing on each deliberate move, helping the giant breathe life into his creations.

The text, written by Burkett, is spoken entirely by him. That is a feat in itself, delivering two and a half hours of scripted and improvised material in 12 different voices, while juggling 40 different marionettes. But skill is just the start of it. Burkett says that Tinka’s new dress, which was first performed in 1994, was when he found his style, his true voice. Known previously for his grotesque, outrageous and camp musical productions, he was about to be taken seriously with this, the first of the ‘Angels in Dresses’ trilogy.

The story is based on the subversive ‘daisy’ puppet shows in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation of World War II, where political issues were aired in a seemingly harmless art form associated with children’s entertainment. Burkett’s dialogue is more transparent and rich in emotion, imagination and artistic ideals. The setting for Tinka’s new dress is a totalitarian regime, the Common Good, which drives the characters, who are themselves puppeteers, underground.

We follow the fate of the main character, Carl, and his sister Tinka, into the ghetto and watch two of his subversive puppet shows, using his old mentor Stefan’s popular Fritz and Schnitzel characters, on a miniature proscenium stage. In an abrupt shift of timeframe and perspective, Burkett uses these interlude scenes to launch into an improvised puppet show dealing with topical issues relevant to the place and time of each performance. No sacred cows were immune on this occasion– not even the Melbourne Festival Artistic Director, Robyn Archer! With all the skill of a stand-up comedian, Burkett manipulated his audience’s responses and won their collective heart with his delightful character Schnitzel. But the audience’s response was also freely given in spontaneous murmurings and little sighs and gasps throughout the performance. We cared deeply about these little people and the ideas and feelings they expressed.

Burkett’s contribution to the textual theme of this year’s Melbourne Festival is enormous. He has noticed, over the past five years, that theatre patrons are ‘longing for the acoustic voice in the theatre’. After being bombarded all day by digital and electronic sounds and messages, we respond to the naked human voice, to dialogue and to spoken ideas. It is certainly refreshing, and moving, to see the skill of puppetry that has been harnessed by the electronic media for TV shows and animated films move back into its traditional arena and the human dimension. To see the skill executed by a master, who has fine-tuned his art to express the fire in his belly and a wealth of ideas, is so much more – we were puppets in his hands.


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© copyright 2003

Carol Middleton