Art isn’t easy

PROVENANCE written and performed by Ronnie Burkett. Presented by CanStage and Rink-a-Dink Inc. at CanStage (26 Berkeley). Runs to March.


PROVENANCE written and performed by Ronnie Burkett. Presented by CanStage and Rink-a-Dink Inc. at CanStage (26 Berkeley). Runs to March 6, Monday-Saturday 8 pm. $20-$46, limited Monday pwyc and half-price same-day rush. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNN

Provenance, puppeteer extraordinaire’s Ronnie Burkett’s latest play, feels like a workshop production. There are lots of stories, themes and characters, but they aren’t as carefully carved out as his exquisite puppets. Set mostly in a Vienna brothel presided over by Leda, the mysterious madam, the two-hour-plus piece shows what happens when homely Canadian art student Pity Beane arrives to track down a Klimt-like painting of a swan and a nude young man tied to a tree in a forest.

The title refers to the history of beautiful works of art, but Burkett clearly wants us to consider the origin of people’s lives, too.

That explains the endless stories within stories, where we meet earlier versions of Leda – cabaret chanteuse, young wife, abused girl – that contrast with Pity’s less glamorous but no less fascinating history.

Some scenes explode with ideas and imagery. When Leda’s younger self experiences sex, for instance, she sidles up against Burkett’s aproned thigh in a Paris nightclub with eyes half-opened and breasts suggestively exposed.

Other scenes are so well established that Burkett can carry on a conversation with his characters even after they’ve been put away to glow momentarily in wooden cabinets.

But Burkett needs an editor. There are too many puppets on parade, and early motifs like forests and train whistles aren’t fully integrated.

A fevered monologue by a soldier is written completely in verse – think Wilfred Owen on amphetamines – but it’s more virtuosic display of verbiage than theatre. Some surreal elements straight out of Sunset Boulevard are jarring. And why not fully develop the Leda and the swan myth?

Burkett the technician is as awe-inspiring as ever, and he even displays a new kind of puppet – a character’s head protruding from his own – that allows him a greater variety of arm movements.

But we expect all this, along with Cathy Nosaty ‘s evocative score, inspired by everything from Viennese waltzes to French cabaret songs.

Burkett’s problem here is one of restraint and selection. He’s pulling on way too many strings.

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