The many stages of puppet grief

By James Keller

Seldom do meaningful scripts, in tandem with acting and dialogue, bring you deep into the story and lives of the characters.

Oh. And there’s puppets in it, too.

These thoughts remain as one leaves the production of Happy, co-presented by Alberta Theatre Projects and One Yellow Rabbit, even if walking in, they were something else entirely.

Before the lights dim and Ronnie Burkett’s Theatre of Marionettes take the stage, one expects a puppet show. You expect to marvel at the life with which they bounce around the stage or the quality of the craftsmanship. You most certainly aren’t expecting to be taken in by a script and befriend the characters–they’re puppets, for crying out loud. However, if those are your expectations going in, get ready to be completely turned around.

Happy follows the sequence of events in a rooming house full of colourful characters, especially Carla. After her boyfriend Drew dies suddenly, she gradually passes through several stages of depression, from "denial" to "saying goodbye." Between Carla’s ever deepening pit of grief, we share the lives of the rest of the household. These include the sheltered Raymond, whose simple hopes and expectations leave him frequently trampled on, to Ricky, a gay hairdresser who turns out to be something completely different than he’s letting on.

The characters, their dialogue and their lives grab the audiences’ hearts and minds so tightly, by the end of the play you forget you’re watching puppets controlled by an actor. And after getting over how life-like and human they appear to be, you’ll hardly even look up to see what’s holding their strings from crashing down on them.

Only two things come to mind that could have been better. First, the music at times was distracting. During the death scenes in the play, loud, drawn-out guitar-rock was played that didn’t fit the mood created by the scenes and just didn’t go along with how the rest of the play was presented. Another complaint, although pushed tremendously overboard by other reviews, is the self-indulgent moments in the play, particularly heightened by the usual inside jokes directed to the theatre community. Yes, they are present. However, to Burkett’s credit, they are actually very accessible to the general public who is even half-informed of theatre in Calgary.

In the end, Happy succeeds on two fronts. First, it’ll be something you’ve probably never seen before. The puppets will enchant and fascinate you, while secondly, the script will have you erupting in laughter one minute and rubbing your eyes the next.

Either way, Happy is by far a great start to a very young theatre season in Calgary. And, for whatever reason you’d like to examine, it has already set the standard.

Just don’t expect more puppets.

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