Friday, October 1, 2010

Strings Attached

Ronnie Burkett’s new show a very queer triumph

Ronnie Burkett’s newest show, Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy, currently running at Factory Theatre, is a queer spectacle of autobiographical proportions. Burkett may not have lived exactly the same life as his protagonist, but the potential similarities are impossible to miss as the title character guides us through the remarkable life of an acclaimed marionette artist from humble prairie beginnings who struggles with a variety of problems regarding his identity as an artist and as a man.

As a designer, actor, and writer, Billy grapples with his position as a cruise ship entertainer, and early on in the show, becomes dissatisfied and disgusted with his audience. This is perhaps the boldest, most meta-theatrical, and funniest aspect of Burkett’s new show, and sets the stage for a daring exploration of the relationship between the artist, his fans, his mentors, and his creations. The humour is contrasted and blended with sharp moments of homophobia as Billy, and Burkett, directly rebuke invisible spectators for homophobic remarks. The puppet and the puppeteer become larger than life examples of the risks a queer performer takes every time he or she sets foot onstage and faces the possibility of an insensitive, potentially queer bashing audience.

The term faggot surfaces early on and begins Billy’s unsettling journey from creative boy to brilliant young man, ultimately finding himself in the position of an older mentor to a younger generation of marionette artists. As the recipient of the 2009 Simonovitch award for design, Burkett has reaped the benefits of collegial acclaim and has been able to encourage new talent as part of the award. The prize comes with a $75,000 cash component as well as another $25,000 for the winner to give to an aspiring artist of their choice

Billy Twinkle possesses all of the same stokes of genius that Burkett has amply revealed in past shows. The beautifully rendered songs (with music by John Alcorn), the gorgeous costumes and characters, the gloriously irreverent animal puppets - but the difference in this show is the incredible scope of the text. All of Burkett’s scripts tend to deal with large world issues, and yet, as a somewhat auto-biographical text, this one is perhaps the queerest and the most ambitious, as it tackles ideas around the distinctions between fine art and popular art, sexual identity, and even inter-generational desire in one uncomfortable and beautifully rendered scene between Billy as a young man and an older spectator who invites him to his hotel room after a show. But even when Burkett moves into these difficult spaces around identity he does it with such sensitivity that it moves the message into a broad world of love, creativity, and desire.

Billy Twinkle is a tour de force that sparkles with all the intensity and glamour of human triumph, indignity, and the brutal, often rewarding decisions artists are forced to make when they commit themselves to lives in the theatre.

running at Factory Theatre until October 24th

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