|Street of Blood: Reviews|
The National Post, Toronto, Canada, Sept. 24, 1999
Characters with strings attached"
One night it's The Road to Hell, the next, it's Street of Blood. They turn out to be very different thoroughfares. The Road to Hell is at best a charade. Street of Blood means business.
It's the creation of Ronnie Burkett, an immensely talented actor, writer, singer and puppeteer. The last may well be what he has on his passport, and is probably how he is best known. His current show involves some 40 marionettes, every one of them immaculately manipulated, with exquisite attention to detail. There is wit in how they walk and sit and in the tilt of their heads. They occupy three adjacent doll's house stages (no design credit, so Burkett is probably responsible for that too) with the master visibly controlling them from above. The technical accomplishment, however, is the least of what is on offer. Street of Blood is a play and a very fine one.
It is set in the small prairie town of Turnip Corners, Alta. - which is pretty much what it sounds like - and its central character is called Edna Rural. Edna is a plain, plump, bespectacled widow, though she always refers to her husband in the present tense. A deeply, if conventionally, religious woman, she is knitting a quilt; she accidentally gets some blood on it, sees the face of Christ in one of the squares, and announces the creation of the Shroud of Turnip Corners.
She has a grown-up adopted son who is homosexual and gives karaoke performances in geriatric wards, under the professional name of Eden Urbane. He is also a terrorist agent provocateur, setting off bombs in order to arouse gay anger of which he harbours a dangerous amount himself. Both mother and son, but especially son, are fans of a former movie star - equally at home, it seems, in musicals and melodramas - called Esme Masengill. A home-town gal herself, Esme has returned to Turnip Corners to launch a new stage musical in which she plays the Virgin Mary.
Esme is also, or principally, a vampire, and an exceptionally nasty one. I should add that Edna's husband, Stanley who was somewhat homophobic has died of AIDS following a tainted blood transfusion, and that he managed - in their final unexpected conjugal encounter -to pass it on to her. This last twist strikes me as dramatically excessive, and pushes the play at the end over the line from affirmation to sentimentality.
They say blood will have blood, and this show is obviously awash with it. I don't find it as effective a unifying device as the author obviously intended, possibly because I've never been able to take any serious interest in vampires, either as myth or metaphor. To me they're theatrical camp, which is certainly how Esme registers here.
On that level, she's entertaining but beyond it she's a trial. She's actually one of a trio of bloodsuckers here, another being her co-star - her Joseph - who is a Jewish actor seeking revenge for the Holocaust. This matter is confined to one scene, which is either too little or too much. The play does not, in fact, hang together very well.
And yet it feels like a masterpiece. Edna, in particular, must be one of the great characters of modern drama, a comfortably-minded woman whom tragedy forces into hitherto unimagined territory: a latter-day Mrs. Alving from Ibsen's Ghosts.
She is realized, in all her strength and silliness, with extraordinary solidity and compassion, and my reflex reaction is to compliment the actress. But of course there isn't one: there's only Burkett, writing the lines, doing the voice, pulling the strings. This creates a remarkable sensation. Usually when a character takes on this kind of autonomous life, you think of her as having escaped from her author. This time, though you can actually forget him for long periods, the author is physically, inescapably there, and you marvel at his understanding.
He is, as is happens, a handsome and melifluous performer (his crooning parodies are spot-on) and he has given himself a couple of acting roles. He plays God, type-casting for a puppeteer, or at least he plays Jesus: a smooth and smiling Saviour who is mocked, and questioned, and bitterly resented, and finally - if I followed it right-accepted.
Anyway; the play's metaphysics are a lot more compelling than those of Angels in America which is the nearest stringless drama I can recall. There is also a flashback in which the young Eden (who is as compelling a creation as Edna) is discovered by his father in an early attempt at cross-dressing; Burkett plays the father, towering over his hapless marionette son in the most terrifying embodiment of paternal oppression I have ever seen on a stage.
At moments like this one-which both exploits the form and bursts it open - emotion rocks the theatre. At others, less frequent, laughter does the same. You don't expect a puppet play to be like this. You don't, unless you're very optimistic, expect much theatre of any kind to be like this.