LITTLE DICKENS at the Centaur Theatre

The Centaur Theatre presents Ronnie Burkett’s

Little Dickens

Created and performed by Ronnie Burkett

Musical arrangements by John Alcorn

Production manager and artistic associate, Terry Gillis

At the Centaur Theare in Montreal

Reviewed by Camilo Lanfranco


Ronnie Burkett,s Little Dickens opened Friday November 22 to an excited audience at the Centaur theatre in downtown Montreal. Created and performed by famed puppeteer, Ronnie Burkett, this production is also signed by John Alcorn in the musical arrangements. The production, intended for audiences over 16 years, is a not-so-delicate mash-up of marionette mastery, cabaret showmanship, and a Canadian, life-in-theatre version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Little Dickens was just extended by popular demand and will be playing at the Centaur until December 21st .

Burkett’s cast of marionettes came from the original Daisy Theatre, co-commissioned by the Luminato Festival in Toronto and the Center for the Arts of Performance at UCLA. Created in 2013, the show started as a semi-improvised cabaret show, where each night was bound to give a different experience, depending on the audience, the general ambiance, and the performer himself. This large array of burlesque characters, from Esmé Massengill to Schnitzel, and including a singing Jesus, Alberta’s own Edna Rural, striper Dolly Wiggler and world famous drag queen, Deena Doya, are now cast in Little Dickens. Becoming Ronnie Burkett’s vehicle for artistic madness – gay, burlesque, improvised, funny, expletive, irreverent, critical and pungent- they bring to life a puppet holiday special, taking upon the many times reinvented Christmas Carol.

Within this tour de force, there are some vital fundamentals. If you have followed Burkett’s work over the years, you know that each marionette is a work of art – a detailed representation of a stage presence, a true character of sorts, that becomes a vessel of emotions between audiences and performer. Each marionette begins with the puppeteers own detailed drawings, including different profiles. While some, larger body parts are made from strong paper maché pulp, legs, arms and feet are carved out in wood. The neck joints are of Burkett’s own design in order to allow for a complete range of movement. In the process of bringing these puppets to life, many other artisans put in their work. Camie Koo, a Canadian theatre designer, makes the shoes for the marionettes. Costumes are made by thirty year collaborator Tim Crossley. Lumen Coad worked with Ronnie to adapt German marionette controls specifically to his performance needs. Marcus Jaming has done all the marionette stringing for over a decade.

The Christmas Carol story, at the basis of the narrative structure, also helps out with its

characters and plot. This is especially true around protagonist Scrooge, played on this occasion by Esmé Massengill as an aged, famous, millionaire performer that has lived a life of show-business and success, only to become a bitter, miserly, and apathetic woman, who only cares about herself, her money and “Art”. Characters from her life are introduced by the magical powers of the three ghosts, each one taking us to different times of her life. In this journey, the cast does a wonderful job in bringing to life Esmé’s world, as well as winning the audience over and into their emotions, humour, and personality. One of Burkett’s most iconic and beloved characters, Schnitzel, plays Tiny Tim masterfully. The twist over the classical tale, is given by the life-in-theatre backdrop, the gay and burlesque stage presence, and the Canadian landscape in the story. As Esmé confides with great dramatic pride: “I promised myself that I would become the biggest film star to ever emerge from…Alberta”.

Finally, the continuous array of seemingly random characters, willing to break the fourth wall, speaking to the audience and engaging directly with them, are skillfully brought to life and vocalized by Burkett. Ronnie himself has no problems in asking the stage manager to turn on the lights over the audience, to be able to look at them (you) straight in the eye. Ronnie does not hide that throughout his decades as a performer, he has become more interested in “the audience as the central component of the theatre going experience…” and that “as a performer it has reinvigorated me to wonder in the mornings who do I get to see tonight?!”

Thus, as soon as the show begins, the frontiers between performer, characters and audiences quickly blur. Audiences are called to participate, and almost demanded to not remain quiet. Expletive language and jokes are at their most Canadian elegance and humour. Montreal and Québec references abound, as well as Alberta, Vancouver, Toronto, and so on. Critiques to the snobby and empty art references and conservative prejudices are also part of the menu. Quick and witty dialogues that go from the sentimental euphoria of deranged characters to the matter of factness of naturally recognizable personalities. Anger, sadness or even very special and heartwarming moments are held together by the movement of strings and wooded characters.

Little Dickens is a testament of the magic and tectonics of art, where we are reminded about the simplicity and power of one single performer, able to transport you into unrealistic worlds, permeated by very real emotions and human drives. Don’t miss the opportunity of seeing all these elements on stage, letting go of fixed notions and worries, and experience the wonderful tour de force that this artist can share beyond the world of marionettes and into a communion of joy. A special experience, between these wooden characters and the group of people brave enough to go see them.

All the right ingredients for Little Dickens.

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