Burkett's Provenance a gift of beauty
You know you're in the presence of a rare and rarified brilliance when you see puppeteer Ronnie Burkett in performance. Light emanates from him like sunlight, starlight, firelight or lightning. Sometimes you bathe in the warmth of that radiance and sometimes you feel scorched. But you will feel-and that's amazing when you think he speaks for two hours alone on stage through many elegantly crafted but tiny puppets.
An Albertan now living in Toronto, Burkett is an internationally acclaimed puppeteer and a great storyteller, venturing into the dark side of the human condition with irony, humour and profound compassion. In Tinka's New Dress (sold out at The Cultch in 2001) he explored the subversive power of theatre; in Provenance, he turns his attention to our obsession with beauty.
Burkett's main character in Provenance is Pity Beane, a decidedly plain art history major in love with a beautiful boy in a 1921 painting. While doing research, she discovered him in a library book but the source does not make it clear whether the painting is titled "Tender" or if that's the name of the painter. As well, the painting's provenance (history of ownership) is also veiled in mystery. So Pity digs deeper and ends up in a Viennese brothel where Tender is hidden.
"Follow my voice," says Burkett right off the top. And you will have to follow that voice as it flows through almost a dozen characters, some of which we see in various stages of their lives or in different costumes. There are several Pity puppets, for example: in a flowered dress, in a cloth coat, just a head, and outfitted for skating. And Leda, the madam of the brothel, has at least three incarnations: a beautiful child, a rebellious young woman and an old woman.
What is constant in Provenance is that beauty is both a gift and a curse. Pity would love to be lovely and therefore desirable. But Leda has paid a terrible price for beauty, beginning with sexual abuse. Each of Burkett's characters is obsessed with beauty in some form and each must deal with the tradeoff that their particular obsession requires.
Provenance's emotional terrain is dark, sometimes sordid and violent but ultimately Pity reaches a plateau that is life affirming: not over-the-moon, hallelujah life affirming, but an emotionally comfortable place to end up. The script is dense, elusive and challenging. Burkett is not an artist who offers easy solutions. But he certainly knows how to pose the questions poetically, elegantly and compellingly.
While the story is always engaging and the concepts provocative, it's Burkett's dazzling performance that puts Provenance into a class all its own. Puppets languish against his lower leg, perch on his extended foot, spin on roller skates or glide across a frozen pond. The puppets and Burkett are indivisible. He speaks through them, for them and for himself at a level I've never seen before. In several places he wears a "head rig" -a puppet head that he dons like a headlamp-and then he speaks. Who is really speaking when Burkett, wearing Pity's head, delivers her outrageous, scathing rant about "bitter, twitching academics?" And who is talking when Leda's conscience-bizarrely conceived as the head of a cow-speaks in Leda's ear?
Burkett pushes the puppet/puppeteer relationship even further. After he puts the puppets away he continues speaking in their voices, addressing us directly. Who are we listening to now? Burkett or Leda or Tender or Pity? And the bond between puppeteer and puppet is truly complete when Burkett returns the puppets to their elegant, windowed "closets" yet we still see them turning slowly behind the rippled glass, as if they are curiously watching to make sure Burkett gets their stories right.
Provenance is exquisite and Burkett at his most vulnerable, courageous best. The show could be shorter but in the presence of such virtuosity, I counted every moment as a gift.