Luminato Festival & Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes/Forget Me Not, created and performed by Ronnie Burkett, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, June 5 to 23. Tickets available at luminato.com.
Ronnie Burkett is a creative genius, and his highly imaginative puppet shows for adults have garnered him legions of fans. But what’s the point of spending time and effort on an artistic endeavour if the audience can’t hear you? Forget Me Not could be the most irritating show I have experienced in recent memory, but more about this very important point later.
In Forget Me Not, Burkett is trying something new. The space is filled with all manner of scattered chairs and benches upon which the audience finds a place. They are encouraged to move around as needed to follow Burkett through the space as he tells the story which is set in the long ago and far away. A couple of big red boxes in the space contain the puppets and props that he needs for his performance.
This is an interactive show with audience participation. First small hand puppets in white robes are handed out by Burkett to everyone. Collectively, the audience represents the Others who are pilgrims in a dystopian universe. In this world, “The New Now”, reading and cursive writing have been banned, and the Others are in search of She, The Keeper of the Lost Hand, one of the last remaining people who know how to read and write. She keeps this knowledge alive by penning love letters for people. Guided by Burkett, the Others engage in various ceremonies as they wait for the arrival of She. From time to time, members of the audience are required to help Burkett conduct these ceremonies. To augment the long ago and far away aspect of the piece, composer John Alcorn’s atmospheric music has been pressed into old-fashioned vinyl and played on a phonograph.
There is also the parallel story of Zacko Budaydos (I first thought I heard Sack of Potatoes), and his cocky assistant who dresses up as his Dancing Bear. Zacko is a carnival con man who lives by his wits, and who bemoans the loss of “The Before”, when the beloved language of Polari was not yet outlawed. By a series of convoluted twists and turns, Zacko’s story (and the bear costume) becomes intertwined with She’s story.
Burkett’s message would seem to be the glory of poetry and the power of love. He also champions tolerance and togetherness. At one point the Others are separated into three groups depending on the coloured symbol on their robes. They are then asked to come together by hugging each other, a clever ploy because puppets can hug, while total strangers in an audience would not. Admittedly, some of the things Burkett gets the audience to do are lame, but an attempt at an interactive puppet show is to be lauded as a new adventure.
Burkett’s style of theatre is what I call whimsy noir, at once fantastical and dark. One can always count on Burkett to concoct an unusual storyline, and Forget Me Not does not disappoint. His original text is a mix of rhyming couplets and prose that, in daring fashion, sometimes borders on the graphic and the vulgar. I have always liked how his plots veer away on unexpected tangents, expecting the audience to connect the dots in the narrative. His hand puppets and marionettes are beautifully designed and crafted, and he is most clever at finding the right voice and tone for each of his characters.
That being said, let’s get to the really bad part. It does not take rocket science to know that a cavernous space like the Tanenbaum Centre with its extraordinarily high ceilings is going to soak up sound. Burkett might fancy that he has a stentorian voice, but not in that space. Every time he turned away, his words were lost. The only way anyone was going to hear everything was to birddog his every step, which was impossible. I’m surprised I was able to make out as much of the story as I did, although there are serious gaps in my knowledge, and I’m quite confused about some of the goings on. The point is, many audience members felt the same way I did. Ironically, Forget Me Not is about the suppression of language, which Burkett certainly does in his own right. He doesn’t work with a director, but you would think that one of his team would have caught this serious problem.
There is still time to correct the situation. Burkett has got to wear a microphone. Period. It is an insult to the audience if he doesn’t.