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{The hand of God} Street of Blood
Written, directed, and performed by Ronnie Burkett
Playing at the Canadian Stage Company, Sep. 22-Oct. 23, 1999
Review by Michael Cottrell


Five years ago, Ronnie staged a production of Tinka's New Dress, which became an international success and brought more fame to Burkett and his company. Burkett still ponders, "Where is the gay theatre audience? What do I have to do, work out for a year and then pose naked on the poster?"

Ronnie Burkett has mounted a new production, and no, the only skin of Ronnie that you are going to see is in fact a naked torso on a promo picture.

{A trio of fully-developed characters}Street of Blood is an awesome production. Just as Ronnie predicts of his audiences, we spent the first 10 minutes watching and wondering, how does he do that? Street of Blood shows you what a master Burkett is at seducing you into the puppet world.

An old piano player comes out and tells us that the play is going to begin in 5 minutes, so if you have to go piddle, you better do it now 'cause this show is long. People actually get up from their seats and run to the bathroom. Now that is a master.

Then Edna appears -- oh, the show has not begun, Edna Rural is just a tease and soon she has the whole audience up singing "O Canada" as if we were the most patriotic beasts in the country. Edna says "do this", and the audience follows.

Burkett has built the bridge from human world to puppet world and the audience follows.

Street of Blood is... well it is... strange? Weird? Definitely fringe? The widow Edna Rural is just that, rural Albertan rural at that. She describes herself simply as an "old biddy in a Sears dress". Edna is incredibly endearing and has the audience in stitches by just being herself.

{Eden, contemplating Jesus}Then there is Eden, her son. Eden Urbane can be described as a karaoke-singing gay terrorist intent on revenge. As it turns out, Eden is adopted and has received a letter from his birth mother, supposedly the screen star Esmé Massengill, and Eden is off to meet her. (I said it was strange, and Burkett has great character names)

Esmé is not only a has-been Hollywood star, but also a vampire seeking fresh sources of blood in an AIDS-ravaged world. (Remember -- weird)

I think if Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody were to show up, old Bob would have a coronary. The sign in the lobby warns this is not a children's puppet show.

Street of Blood is an awesome production. For two hours and a bit, one is totally separated from the real word. Edna, Eden, Esmé and the others become our world. We laugh (some even cry) and, in the end, we cheer as Edna takes on new direction and heads off to new horizons.

The audience is on its feet once again, without prompt, cheering and whooping as Ronnie Burkett takes his final bow and he was not even naked -- but hey, in a Ronnie Burkett Theatre show, you never know what's around the corner.

"Radicals take" --Eden Urbane

I would run screaming from the room as soon as I heard the intro song, "It's Howdy Doody Time". Maybe I was warped as a child, but that country bumpkin wood boy held no admiration from me -- and to think Buffalo Bob Smith drag that dump puppet through show after show from 1947 to 1960. Now I don't recall any television before 1960 because I was not on this planet, but I remember that show, so Howdy Doody must have gotten into reruns. Why? I will never know. This was all before remote controls. The sane thing would have been to get up and manually turn the channel, but I was a drama queen in waiting and I enjoyed the grand exits of hysteria. Besides, what was I going to switch the channel to? Captain Kangaroo? Now, that's another forgettable experience in puppetry.

At the age of seven, Ronnie Burkett entered the world of puppets through an encyclopedia. I guess maybe they didn't have TV back there in Alberta, so when his mother shooed him out of her way, he found the "P" book and the marionette world began to unfold.

Buffalo Bob Smith was nothing compared to the puppet master Bil Baird. Baird is best known for his marionettes in the movie of The Sound of Music. Another great master was Martin Stevens.

Ronnie's interest in puppets grew to the point that he was taking his puppets on tour from one town to another. At 14, he traveled to the puppet festival in Michigan. Ronnie describes the puppeteers as, "savvy, crusty old boys -- hard drinking motherfuckers"

Now, can you picture Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob as hard drinking motherfuckers?

Ronnie was not dissuaded by the old timers. He wanted to learn and learn he did. Ronnie counts himself lucky: "I got these guys at the end of their lives. They gave me so much. So many important rules. All of which I've since broken."

At the age of 19, Ronnie Burkett got his wish to apprentice under a puppet master. Ronnie worked with Bil Baird in New York.

Ronnie was also mentored by Martin Stevens. Stevens taught Ronnie the art of technique. "Martin would write to me saying, ‘Good, now you know how to build puppets -- but you have to become a good actor. Take lessons... Good, now you can act -- now you have to learn to sing.' he taught me that I had to move beyond the craft stage of puppetry in order to make a career out of it."

Ronnie moved from the period where he was seen as a Alberta boy merely playing with dolls into a full fledged performer. 1986 saw Ronnie pour his craft into his own company called Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, leaving behind the world of puppet rules and puppet organizations and stepping into the fringe theatre.

Bil Baird said, "When a human performer and a puppet share the same stage, the puppet cannot compete... especially if the performer is ‘on'". Well watch Ronnie Burkett, who neither seeks to hide from his puppets, nor give any illusions that he is not there. Ronnie says that his audiences always spend the first ten minutes watching the craft: "How is he doing it, the voices, the movement? And then they're into it. I can see them relating only to the puppets and forgetting about me. It is a wild experience to know these characters move people. And it is still funny."

Ronnie pours his spirit into his art. This gay master puppeteer is no shrinking violet. Ronnie has been called the "bad boy" of the puppet world. His characters know how to camp with the best drag queen on Church Street. Ronnie has succeeded by daring to be different.





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