Daisy Theatre’s delightful take
on William Shakespeare
Master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett delivers another charming show in Little Willy
By Byron Toben
May 8, 2023
First off, let me declare my bias. Years ago, when I was in elementary school, I came across a book on how to make hand puppets from old socks. I enjoyed it so much that I resolved to become a puppeteer. However, life intervened, and I took another course.
So, I am predisposed to appreciating good hand puppets and stringed marionettes, and there are none better than Ronnie Burkett and his handcrafted characters, which constitute his Daisy Theatre.
I have seen several of his shows, including his 2022 Little Dickens, where he took on the great novelist Charles Dickens. In his latest, Little Willy, he takes on the great playwright, William Shakespeare, hitting highlights of Romeo and Juliet, particularly the balcony and crypt scenes.
Mr. Burkett received many Canadian and international awards since his 1986 debut, including a 2019 appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada. With a variety of wooden characters in different shows, he has created what I would term a puppet repertory company, the Daisy Theatre, a sort of vaudeville cabaret with recurrent characters.
In his latest, Little Willy, he [Ronnie Burkett] takes on the great playwright, William Shakespeare, hitting highlights of Romeo and Juliet, particularly the balcony and crypt scenes.
Among these are a military lieutenant, Major General Leslie; several prima donna actresses, Jolie Jolie and Esme Massengill; an aged seated woman, Edna Rural; and the popular child, Schnitzel.
Little Willy also introduces a Romeo marionette, as well as a balding theatre producer seeking someone to play Juliet. Many wannabe Juliets are rejected, resulting in Romeo deciding to play both roles himself (echoing Bottom in A Midsummers Night’s Dream).
The whole, voiced by Mr. Burkett without a script, is reminiscent of jazz improv so some examples I remember from the Tuesday, May 2 opening might not be “spoilers” for later shows.
When asked by the puppet producer whether she has ever performed Juliet before, Jolie Jolie replies, “No, but I knew the playwright,” leading to the producer responding, “How old ARE you?,” and her, “Old enough to know that friending the playwright is the best way to be cast.”
Later the Romeo puppet courts favour with an actress puppet by announcing, “I am one of the few male actors who like cats.” (How true!)
Mr. Burkett, now on the 7th city of his tour, mentions not only Montreal but, having not considered, the Westmount community theatre (Dramatis Personae), and disparages Tuesday night audiences, speaking of which, lots of audience participation here. He prevailed upon one lady in the audience to come on down and operate a wheel which opened a chest to reveal a nine-member puppet orchestra which mimics the score otherwise recorded by collaborator John Alcorn (lyrics, music, programmer and keyboards), John MacLeod (trumpet) and Bob De Angelis (clarinet and tenor saxophone).
Also, he prevailed in enlisting two male audience members to join him on the above stage platform to operate the control strings of several dancing hot dogs (wieners), which they managed with ease.
Finally, in the crypt scene, he enticed another male to clamber onto the stage, remove his shirt and play the dead Romeo while mourned by one of the puppet Juliets (Rosemary Focaccia) before, in grief, impaling herself on a plastic fork.
I didn’t catch the first names of these four volunteers, but if they see this review and want 15 minutes of fame (sort of), contact us, and we will include them in an amendment.
You don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan to love Little Willy!
Little Willy continues at the Centaur until May 14.
Images: courtesy of the Centaur Theatre
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.