Burkett's 'Penny' dark, funny

World-renowned puppeteer Ronnie Burkett.

World-renowned puppeteer Ronnie Burkett.

JOHN COULBOURN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:27 PM ET

At 54, Ronnie Burkett finds himself at an awkward age -- and quite frankly, he's enjoying it.

Sitting in his bright and airy West Toronto studio -- a storefront, just downstairs from the home he shares with musician John Alcorn and their two dogs -- Burkett discusses the joys, and the vagaries, of aging with something akin to good humour.

"I'm not young enough to be the new kid or the saucy bad boy," he says, his raucous laughter indicating he remembers well being both. "And I'm too young to be revered and iconic."

That said, it seems, nonetheless, that Burkett is right where he wants to be.

For openers, he is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his company -- The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes -- with Penny Plain, a new show that's already drawn rave reviews in Vancouver and Edmonton in advance of its Toronto opening at the Factory Theatre Tuesday.

Even for Burkett, who's been known to tackle thorny subjects like Nazis, AIDS, homophobia, and a host of other tough topics, this is a dark one, set as it is at the end of the world and starring a blind old lady named Penny Plain.

"It is what it is," Burkett says, with an enigmatic smile. "The premise is that it is the last three days for civilization and there is no 11th hour reprieve.

"It's dark, but it's really funny. Everything we're seeing is beautiful and it's not hopeless. The world would survive and regenerate if we just get out to the way."

And speaking of getting out of the way, there's an element of that in Penny Plain too, although it is Burkett himself who is getting out of the way of his celebrated marionettes.

It's a direct result, he says, of his work in Billy Twinkle: Requiem to a Golden Boy, the loosely autobiographical and largely acclaimed work that preceded Penny Plain on Burkett's dance card.

It cut close to the bone, he admits.

"The thing that saved me from having a therapy session up there is that I've never told people what's real up there and what's bullshit.

"There are performers," he concedes, "who go out there and tell their true stories, but they are only really telling you one half of their story and the truth lies somewhere in the middle."

But Burkett came face to face with some major truths during Billie Twinkle -- some, like winning the Siminovtich Prize for stage design, were for the good, others, like the death of his adoptive father, who died during the building of the show, and of his adoptive mother, who died during the run, a little less so.

"The one thing that Billy left me feeling was I felt really prone and I really questioned being that visible," he recalls. "I think I'd forgotten the magic of puppets doing the work and just getting out of the way."

So, even though he wasn't sure he could do it, he set out to make a show that kept the focus squarely on his marionettes, and, as a result: " Eighty-five percent of this show, you're watching the puppets," he reports with quiet pride.

"It's been thrilling," he adds, with a sense of rediscovery. "I didn't fall in love with puppets to be in the light. Puppetry, for me, was limitless."

There's a bit of irony there, for while puppetry has made Burkett an international sensation in the past 25 years, it hasn't done much for his reputation as a well-rounded performer, which is, after all, what led him into show business, as a kid from Medicine Hat, Alta.

Does he ever dream of deserting his celebrated coterie of marionettes to build a character the way other actors do?

"Constantly," he says with a philosophic shrug, acknowledging the fact that he's seen as a puppeteer, not a performer. "You'd need a theatre full of directors who realize that I've been acting all these years. It's the same with design..."

Indeed, Burkett was deeply touched to be honoured in the field of design by the Siminovitch jury that finally awarded him that prestigious prize after several nominations.

"I'm one of the few who could be nominated in every category," he says simply.

"Not that I'm complaining," he adds with a laugh. "I do know my place -- at this age."

Rarely has an awkward age ever seemed so downright, well, comfortable.


Videos

Photos