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Review: LITTLE DICKENS at Canadian Stage

Review: LITTLE DICKENS at Canadian Stage

Raunchy puppet retelling of A Christmas Carol is pure ridiculous fun.

Before starting his opening night performance of LITTLE DICKENS at Canadian Stage, puppeteer extraordinaire Ronnie Burkett confesses to the audience that his cast of characters has just come out of storage after three hard pandemic years, and that he feels rusty, but he hopes that this evening of supreme ridiculousness is just what we need.

Burkett needn't have worried. His partially-improvised puppet homage to A Christmas Carol, set in the bawdy and naughty world of show business, is a metatheatrical, in-joke-filled wonderland that pulls all the right strings.

Burkett's stable of characters of the Daisy Theatre make appearances in each of his works, "types" that take on roles and characterizations as necessary. Having never seen Burkett perform live, I was aware that there were layers of meaning accessible to long-time viewers that I didn't completely understand, but there was never really a feeling of being kept out of the joke. There was plenty for new audiences to enjoy as well.

Photo of Ronnie Burkett by Dahlia Katz

This version of the Dickens classic stars Burkett's Esmé Massengill as Esmé Scrooge, a vicious, booze-soaked diva who simply can't believe there are no Christmas eve and day performances of her new musical hit. Sarcastic, self-absorbed and salacious, Esmé mistreats everyone around her, including charity-seekers, relatives, and employees. Faced with the ghostly reappearance of her former performance partner and three other spirits (and not the ones she was planning on drinking), she revisits her past, the presently happy but impoverished home life of manager Bob Cratchit and his sick child Tiny Tim, and the potential for a horrible future.

The multitudinous marionettes are beautifully crafted, each with a distinct personality. Burkett manipulates them expertly; while he is always visible and occasionally directs remarks to the audience, one can also easily forget that the "actors" are really inanimate objects. He's adept at switching voices and characters quickly.

While you can easily lose yourself in the puppetry, there's always a sly meta reference around the corner, such as jokes about a character's remarkable acting ability to stand still when not being manipulated from above, or a puppet protesting walking in an unnatural direction with "I'm not strung that way," to remind you of the intense concentration and skill involved. Equally impressive are the puppet costumes; an early gag featuring Burkett's Christmas tree sweater pays off in a miniature echo later, and Esmé makes much of her "redemption outfit."

Burkett intersperses the story with cabaret-style songs and guests, including the first marionette striptease I've ever seen. In that vein, the show is not for kids and sweetly raunchy, featuring more salacious plays on the names of Christmas carols that one ever thought possible. Audience participation is a chance for Burkett's playful side to really let loose; yes, he'll "volun-tell" you from the audience, and gently tease his victims, but it's all in good fun.

The heavy layer of irony in Burkett's storytelling is interspersed with the occasional moment of refreshing earnestness. I particularly enjoyed the long, rambling appearance of Edna Rural of Turnip Corners, Alberta, who is genuinely overwhelmed with wonder at the world of show business; as well, Tiny Tim's puppet portrayer, Schnitzel, meditates on what Christmas is really like for a puppet stuffed in a case between shows. Tiny Tim himself has one of the more moving speeches about his desire to fly past the bounds of his current existence, while acidly commenting "I don't need your pity" to the expected ableist response to his crutch.

As the show is partially improvised, there is no telling what length it will be, but prepare for two full hours of anarchy, including an appearance from Jesus himself.

LITTLE DICKENS is, indeed, pure ridiculousness, but maybe that's just what we need right now. One thing's for sure; when it comes to the puppet stage, Burkett proves that if you build it, they will come - o ye faithful.

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From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Colu... (read more about this author)

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