The two dowdy actresses are huddled over a tiny quilt barely a foot in length, at odds over an odd spot of blood. “Sure, nobody sees miracles but Catholics, kooks, and cripples,” says Cora Pickles, speaking pure Canuck. “You don’t recognize it?” counters Edna Rural. “Recognize who?” “Why plain as day, it’s him!” “Who?” “The son of God!” “No! Are you sayin’ that’s Elvis on your quilt?” “No!” Dramatic pause, “Himself! Jesus!”
Something miraculous is afoot. If tonight the performers are a little…wooden, you’ll forgive them. They are members of a cast moved by the spirit; they owe their lives and liveliness to that same man up above. No, not God–Ronnie Burkett.
In the two-and-a half bewildering hours of this show, the God/Burkett divide gets a little iffy. The Ronnie Burkett Theater of Marionettes features one man, 12 characters, and nearly 30 puppets performing Street of Blood, a “prairie gothic” of small-town Canada. It is exhilarating–and exhausting.
Burkett is a good metaphor for the Big Guy; he single-handedly brings this town to life, writing all, sculpting all, controlling all. Yet none of his puppets seem particularly grateful. And here is the crux of Street of Blood: In the midst of telling a good story, Burkett is not afraid to let the lights come up to reveal an imperfect creator standing above the stage.
In his funny world, playful, human characters teeter from pathos to camp. “Oh, Eden,” sighs Mrs. Rural, the dumpling-faced protagonist of Turnip Corners. “Disappointment. It’s the curse of the Rural men.” The plucky, 18-inch “old biddy in a Sears housedress” has to face up to a troubled gay son, an imperfect Messiah, and a vampire invasion. In the course of a summer, blood–the bond, the Eucharist, and the source of life–makes its strange demands. But this is puppet theater after all, and some measure of a happy ending is in store.
Burkett has a unique style. The voices he uses for his characters, for example, are not perfectly distinct; some conversations between characters sound more like a blurred conversation happening inside one head. And he steps forward, freely and often, as himself, sharing the floor with the characters for whom he speaks. Disconcerting? Yes, but gripping, because the story he’s telling is clearly personal. We come to know that the voices and experiences of his dolls are the voices of his life, a gay man dealing with the rage of a rural upbringing. It’s a strange and compelling voyeurism to see the man usually hidden behind a screen.
There’s no getting around it: This is one of the gayest thatrical productions currently running in New York City. The villainess is a drag queen in the Disney tradition, there are show tunes, and camp references to dykes and gay taboos are made. Messages of acceptance are lifted from the pages of ’90s queer self-help books, and one character even jibes the divine Burkett for his “aging club boy” haircut. More than that, the style–airy, earnest, visual and gorgeous–only underlines the gay themes of real life versus escapism.
Not everything works, which is hard to say about a play that gets three standing ovations in a notoriously stingy town. The script is a little long and unfocused. The references, in an age of HIV treatment advances, run the danger of becoming dated. And when the play heads from glib beauty to deeper waters, not all of the audience members make the transition; there is a particular scene between the puppeteer and an aging ballerina marionette that is not for the squeamish. But, seeing Burkett drenched and beaming at the final call, it seems almost ungenerous to bring up these points.
Burkett’s productions are often held over, time and space permitting. But don’t take that chance. Truly a genius in his field, Ronnie Burkett has created in Street of Blood a complicated world, and a revealing look at the act of creation itself.