Wednesday, September 29, 2010

29 Sep'10

Rating: 5 out of 5

These days, when Toronto theatre-goers ask, "Ever been to see Billy?" they'll be more concerned, one suspects, with high camp and hijinx than Captain Highliner.

For the Billy in question is no dewy-eyed little boy -- at least not when we first meet him as the title character in BILLY TWINKLE: REQUIEM FOR A GOLDEN BOY. The latest creation from Ronnie Burkett and his internationally acclaimed Theatre of Marionettes has had theatre people talking across the nation. BILLY TWINKLE finally opened in its Toronto premiere Tuesday, launching a new season at the Factory Theatre. And frankly, when we first meet Billy Twinkle, he is very much at sea, both literally and figuratively -- and he's feeling a little sea sick.

Played by Burkett, Billy, at 50 and beyond, is simply doing what he's been doing for years, entertaining cruise ship patrons with his marionette show titled Stars in Miniature. And not only is he sick of the work, he is sick of his boorish audience as well,. So, it's hardly surprising when he commits what is apparently, the cardinal sin amongst cruise ship entertainers and shushes a member of his audience.

Fired for his transgressions, a marionette master at the end of his rope, he decides to commit suicide. That plan, if plan it be, is high-jacked when he is suddenly possessed by the spirit of his long-deceased mentor, Sid Diamond, who has taken over a hand puppet who shanghais Billy into reliving his life to figure out where it all went off the rails. Or perhaps, off the strings is more appropriate. Under Sid's control, Billy's life is played out, vaudeville style, by a troupe of marionettes, introducing us to Billy as a young boy in Moose Jaw, Sask., dreaming of finding big-time stardom in the miniature world of marionettes and leading him, with several always delightful and usually irreverent side trips, back to his current berth on the voyage of the damned.

But this is no ship of fools, for Burkett's marionettes and their creator/manipulator have shaken off most of the constraint that has marked Burkett's more recent shows to return to the broad and bawdy ways of his and their youth, supported by the music of John Alcorn and the lighting of Kevin Humphrey.

Meanwhile, Billy's story is just autobiographical enough to lead an audience to suspect that it may indeed be Burkett's own story -- Burkett was raised in Medicine Hat, just down the road from Moose Jaw, was mentored by a well-known American puppeteer and even performed in his hometown's annual Kiwanis Festival. Although, if memory serves, his choice of material favoured show tunes from A CHORUS LINE rather than the folks songs Billy struggles to learn. But unlike Billy, Burkett has rarely had to sell his soul as a mere commercial artist, and while Billy claims to be sick of the world of puppets, Burkett is still clearly fascinated by it. After nearly a quarter century, he is still turning the world of marionettes on its ear with a potent blend of inventiveness and irreverence, pushing the creative envelope at the same time as he's teetering on the very outer edges of what is broadly defined as good taste.

So if one is really looking for Burkett in this show, one might be better advised to look beyond facile coincidence to the man himself -- a one-time golden boy suddenly face to face with mortality and learning that, as a truly gifted performer, gifts are not only received but given. Billy Twinkle is not, mind you, a perfect show, particularly in an ending that feels far too pat. But few are likely to notice, for once again, Burkett dazzles us with his creativity and with the sparkle Billy loves.

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