Thursday, 7 October 2004

Provenance by Ronnie Burkett, October 7, 2004

Provenance  by Ronnie Burkett  
Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes
Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, October 7 to 23, 2004  
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on October 7, 2004  

To paraphrase one of his characters, puppeteer, Ronnie Burkett, breathes life into static forms. Alone on stage, he physically and vocally animates a parade of miniature people.

Provenance is the second Burkett production at the Melbourne Festival. Its methods echo the previous show, Tinka's New Dress, but it is tougher, more violent and bawdier.

Burkett is no shrinking violet puppeteer, hiding behind a curtain or black hood. He is front and centre with his marionettes and his charm and presence are essential to the story, style and characters.

He plays every character, manipulating with strings or manually. Burkett's form is fascinating because he physically and vocally blends with the creatures he creates.

On an elaborate and vivid stage, he pulls marionettes out of cupboards and animates them. Sometimes he speaks as the character without the puppet, at others he straps a puppet head to his forehead and his body completes the character. It is a compelling form.

The narrative follows Pity, a waspish, bold and very plain art history student who leaves her stodgy, Canadian university to research a painting that obsesses her.

The search for its provenance - the history of artist and ownership - leads her to a brothel in Vienna, peopled with eccentric whores, an acerbic madam and Herschell, an old American Jew who owns the painting.

Pity's obsession with the canvas stems from her childhood and her own lack of physical beauty.

The painting takes pride of place on stage and depicts a lean, pale boy, lashed to a tree and naked apart from a pair of green stockings.  A swan either attacks or enwraps his body.  This boy is Pity's only love and her search for the painting is also a quest to touch beauty and love.

She tells the ageing hooker and ex-chanteuse, Leda, of her gay father and his lover, who she calls Uncle Boyfriend. Leda, in turn, shares her tragic life story. It is Leda who reveals the horrific and true provenance of the boy in the painting.

Burkett's expertise, his circuitous train of thought, his rapid-fire dialogue and high camp humour make Provenance a fine theatrical experience. The denouement of the provenance of the canvas is an emotionally charged, electrifying poetic charge through a World War One battlefield.

LOOK FOR: A singing, roller skating monkey called Plato and Pity on ice skates.

By Kate Herbert

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