Marionettes and Viennese brothels

By James Keller

In the world of marionettes, everything is smaller. The sets, the costumes, the players–everything, that is, except the characters.

Provenance, Ronnie Burkett’s newest production since his acclaimed Happy took the stage in 2000, follows Pity Beane, a young, naïve Canadian art student. After becoming obsessed with Tender, a mysterious boy whose portrait catches her eye, she undergoes a search that explores the nature of beauty. This search leads her to the unlikeliest of settings: a Vienna brothel.

According to Burkett, such a quest translates well into the world of marionettes because they are inanimate, artistic objects.

"I think a lot of our notion of beauty is from art, and art is artificial," he explains. "I wanted to examine the whole thing about how we look at art and how we look at people. I don’t think when people view art that they are aware that it sees us, too."

Burkett explains the link between puppets and beauty while sitting in front of the elaborate, colourful wooden stage in the Martha Cohen Theatre. The set, modestly small but towering over a cast of now-lifeless marionettes, is now home to dozens of puppets–there are eight incarnations of Pity alone.

That Burkett’s one-man show uses puppets to depict reality instead of human actors in no way detracts from its believability, but this suspension of disbelief may be even more difficult with Burkett’s subject matter. Instead of the usual fantasy and illusion that dominates modern puppet performances, Burkett deals with real people living real lives. This raises the bar in whether such an attempt is successful.

"If I say ‘this is a Hobbit,’ who’s going to argue with me?" Burkett says, adding that depicting humans is a more daunting task, simply because your models are sitting in the audience. "I think you have to be more honest with your representation. You have to have that detail if you’re doing it with people."

The puppets also serve as icons, inviting the audience to breathe their life into the puppets. This iconic quality of puppets, he says, is very similar to iconic representations elsewhere in our culture.

"Because they’re not human, they need to become vessels that the audience can put their own perspective into," Burkett explains. "It’s no different than millions of people kneeling in front of the Madonna."

These representations, and the puppets present ordinary characters in an extraordinary way, relate back to the central theme of Provenance: beauty. More importantly, the type of beauty that often goes unnoticed.

"I used to think that the opposite of beauty is ugliness, but then I realized the beautiful and the grotesque are on the same level because they get noticed," Burkett explains, adding that most people fit safely into the plain (and subsequently unnoticed) category. "I wanted to have that discussion, that the real beauty is in the plain."

Provenance runs through Sun., Apr. 4 at the Martha Cohen Theatre. For tickets call 294-7402.

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