Ronnie Burkett is a phenomenal performer. The puppets that he and his team creates are works of art. And he needs a whole lot more help with storytelling than he’s getting.
Lots of things about Burkett’s newest show, Forget Me Not, are very cool.
For starters, it’s in an unusual location, which is revealed after you buy your ticket. Let’s just say that, when you get there, it’s a relatively large, open room. Burkett moves about as he performs and audience members follow him.
And, for the duration of the show, everybody gets their own hand puppet. They’re gorgeous, of course, and every one of them is different. I got so attached to my little guy that I kissed him goodbye before I gave him back. I talked to other audience members after the show who had formed similar bonds. Inviting people to play with dolls is a terrific — and highly original — theatrical strategy for opening the door to the imagination.
Burkett invites participation in other ways, too. Every time he says, “Music, maestro, please!” whichever audience member is closest to the turntable rushes over and drops the stylus on a new record. And playgoers light the story’s main puppet characters with flashlights.
But the script is all over the map. There’s: a rhymed introduction that lays out a myth about courtly love and forget me nots; a kind of Punch and Judy performance in which the characters, both male, are a hunchback named Zako Budaydos and his flunky, Nutzo Baad; a set-up about a literate young woman who’s rejected in romance and becomes a professional letter writer; a love affair between Zako and a tattooed woman; a sidebar in which the letter writer speaks up for queer dignity …
This is all overlaid with a critique of digital surveillance, a plot convention about the criminalization of handwriting, and notions about the importance of ritual. After a while, you also figure out that the time frame has been shifting back and forth.
I’m all for free association, but Jesus! It would be great to get a sense of underlying coherence.
Thematically, what does all of this add up to? The main thing that I got was a deep melancholy about love. Nothing works out for anybody on any level, which seems … maudlin.
All of this is disappointing.
But I was never bored. Burkett can be so in love with his own supposed inspiration that he eschews the discipline of effective communication — but, at the same time, he’s an arresting presence. There’s so much passion in his character voices and so much audacity and wit in his delivery that it’s hard to look away.
When I was feeling fatigued by the narrative eddies of Forget Me Not, I checked in with my sweet hand puppet or I gazed at the detail of one of Burkett’s marionettes and they kept me in the room.
FORGET ME NOT By Ronnie Burkett. Produced by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes and presented by Ronnie Burkett and The Cultch at a secret location, which is revealed when you buy your tickets. Viewed on Wednesday, February 5. Continues until March 1. Tickets.
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