I went solo to Canadian puppeteer and storyteller Ronnie Burkett’s newest show. I wasn’t on my own for long.
Within a few minutes, I had a companion: a hand puppet dressed in monastic robes and a hand-sculpted head that reminded me strongly of a former Prime Minister. I named him Malcolm and we kept close company for the next two hours. I was glad to have the distraction.
Forget Me Not is a promenade-style performance, staged in the Track 8 space. The audience enters a room full of vintage chairs in semi-haphazard arrangement. There are several performance stations – big boxes, basically – in the room. Above our heads is a festoon arrangement of fairy lights and handwritten letters.
In a lengthy introductory statement – brevity is not Burkett’s forte – it’s made clear that the audience will be very much part of the show. We are free to move around the room as we see fit. At times, he says, we will be asked to operate puppets, use torches to light scenes, and provide the soundtrack using a turntable and a rack of custom-pressed records.
Then Burkett hands out glove puppet “others” to everyone in the room – in essence doubling the size of the audience.
Burkett is centrestage (wherever that is) throughout, operating a cast of small marionettes and hand puppets and spinning a story set in a fairytale dystopia – the New Now – where to read and write is to court death. Hope remains, however, in the figure of “She”, a secret writer of love letters and sole custodian of cursive.
Woven with this is the narrative of a carnival entrepreneur, Zacko Budaydos, his long-suffering sidekick employee Notso, and the Tattooed Woman who is the love of his life. This story illustrates “The Before”, a time when travelling performers, prostitutes and homosexuals communicated in Polari, the mongrel language of the demi-monde.
Burkett builds an involving sense of community at first and there are at least a couple of interesting participatory scenes. In one, a member of the audience is treated to a ceremonial foot bath. In another, much later in a show whose ending seems to be forever on the horizon, the “others” are exhorted to take part in a group beating. No one took up the offer on this occasion.
But in general, Burkett’s storytelling lacks clarity and precision and his characters are verbose to the point where you find yourself wondering whether Burkett is voicing them off the top of his head. At times, the experience is like watching an overgrown child immersed in play.
As this meandering Punch and Judy epic progresses, interest in its characters and themes fades, as does the willingness to act one’s part in maintaining it. For an hour or so, Malcolm, my “other”, remained interested but then, like just about all the others in the room, his head began to droop. His will to participate evaporated with mine.
With half an hour to go, many in the audience had ungloved their hand, their puppets lifeless in their laps, and that, I’m sure, is the last thing Burkett would have wanted.