The Age, 11 Oct 2004 (Melbourne Australia)
Those who saw Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett's amazing Tinka's New Dress at the 2002 Melbourne Festival will not be disappointed with this new show, co-commissioned by Robyn Archer for this year's festival.
It is a more sombre piece, taking risks with sexual ambiguities and abstract philosophical questions, but grounded, like Tinka, in wartime horror, with enormous emotional impact.
It also develops, fascinatingly, a series of layers - of narrative, symbolism and significance - that are centred on the strange homoerotic painting that has drawn its heroine, Pity Beane, from Canada to Vienna in search of it. She desires not the painting itself, but its provenance, the story of its origin and its ownership.
Burkett's complex tale uncovers a story of tragic ownership in which the painter and her subject are bound together forever. Plain, homely Pity has understood the power of beauty in the painting, a strange version of Leda and the Swan.
The ancient Greek story of the rape of Leda by Zeus, in the form of a swan, is given a complex series of twists in Burkett's story. There is even some wry comedy in the name of the painter, Leda Swan, and her story is grounded in rape - one her own, one that of the painting's subject - the nightmare that shadows her career as painter's muse, erotic subject, rich man's wife and, finally, madam of the brothel in which Pity finds the painting.
Burkett's many characters hang behind ornate wardrobe doors in the brothel, and he creates a colourful gallery of individuals who are like the city of Vienna itself, survivors of war and violence, yet always devotees of beauty. Pity's New World directness and apparent naivety are in sharp contrast, yet she has her surprises, too.
Brought up by two gay fathers, Pity has an earthy wit and strong grip on reality that helps her rebel against her country's neat but ultimately hypocritical conformities. She provides a sympathetic audience to Leda's terrible story, one that is told in episodes that work backwards to the dark secrets at their core.
Burkett's superb puppets - some are floating "head" puppets attached to his forehead - bring a dimension of artifice to the serious concerns of the work. With Burkett working them, standing above them, vocalising all the roles, sometimes continuing the dramatic exchanges even when the puppets have been retired behind their doors, there is yet another dialogue created. This is one between the New and the Old worlds, Pity and Leda their representatives, where history instructs us that we neglect its lessons at our peril. Pity's brief story tells us that violence and evil can victimise a plain girl as much as they did the beautiful Leda.
At more than two hours, it is a long journey, occasionally made irritating by inaudible passages, but in Provenance Ronnie Burkett once again offers us a truly remarkable theatrical experience with enormous impact.