Little Willy is a big hit

publicity photo for Little Willy

Who wouldn’t love Schnitzel
(pictured here with their creator, Ronnie Burkett)?

I had almost forgotten what helpless laughter feels like. It’s good for the soul.

In Little Willy, marionette master Ronnie Burkett is working a new premise, using many of the familiar faces from his “repertory company” of puppets and even doing one of his most … shall we say “time honoured” bits of schtick.

At first, I wasn’t sure how well it was going to work. The premise of Little Willy is that the Daisy Theatre, a traveling group of marionettes, has been booked into a venue that has mistakenly advertised them as a Shakespearean troupe, so they decide to improvise Romeo and Juliet.

The show starts off with Dolly Wiggler doing her familiar striptease. In terms of technique, it’s undeniably virtuosic, but I’ve seen it a bunch of times. And then Burkett trots out a series of beautifully crafted marionette characters — who don’t do much. The major general. The major general in drag. A librarian who’s an unfortunately stereotypical old maid.

The best jokes in this section are metatheatrical. Burkett’s only got two hands so, when he’s dealing with three puppet characters, one of them has to just hang there. This leads to some great gags about diva Esmee Masengill’s extraordinary technique, the discipline of her stillness.

And then Little Willy suddenly gains depth. Schnitzel arrives. Schnitzel is a little fairy with twisty ears and a flower growing out of their bald head. Schnitzel makes the pitch that they should be allowed to perform the balcony scene all by themself: they are, after all, gender fluid. The pitch itself is moving and, when Schnitzel launched into “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Schnitzel/Burkett delivered the speech with such innocence and feeling it was like I’d never heard it before. By the time Schnitzel got to “Romeo, doff thy name,/And for that name, which is no part of thee,/Take all myself”, I was in tears.

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