Tinka's New Dress

Keith Gallasch

As the great Bill Irwin is to clowning, so Ronnie Burkett is to puppeteering. In a brilliant blend of traditional narrative and postmodern interruption via a puppet show within a puppet show, Burkett sustains the conventions and craft of his art and wryly and often uproariously takes them and his audience apart. The story, a homage to the Nazi-persecuted puppeteers of 30s Czechoslovakia, is dense with dialogue, movement and costume changes (differently attired marionettes for the same characters; there are 8 Tinkas). The marionettes populate a carousel which comprises the rotating set and which Burkett also inhabits, his hands and legs visible, his face not really lit until later in the show when he comes face to face with characters from both worlds he has generated. Even within the framework of convention Burkett takes gentle and affecting liberties, the barely knee-high marionettes resting against one of his legs as if he were a piece of furniture, or the setting of characters either side of him and out of his reach as he delivers the dialogue with turns of his head. Burkett does all the voices.

In the totalitarian regime of the Common Good, the old puppeteer Stefan stages his popular but increasingly policed Franz and Schnitzel show. Carl, his rebellious apprentice, takes these characters into a proscribed underground cabaret world, producing a rich comic power play between the domineering Franz and the put-upon, gentle Schnitzel, and much acerbic political commentary, thereby dooming himself to imprisonment and death. His ally is his sister, Tinka, and his enemy is Fipsi, a fellow puppeteer who runs with the Common Good and in turn appropriates Franz and Schnitzel for the state’s humourless ends. The great, inventive leap that Burkett makes is to portray Carl’s Franz and Schnitzel as contemporaneous with us, inhabiting a totally different time and space from the 1930s resonances of the main plot and its period costuming.

The audience quickly adjust to this sleight of hand and the pleasure too of Burkett’s company as he appears first as Carl at work with Franz and Schnitzel and subsequently addresses us directly as himself, quipping about everything from Archer’s avant garde festival (“Bea Arthur?”), to a classically difficult Saturday night audience the day before (“all married to their cousins”), Melbourne-Sydney tensions, gay politics, S&M and George Bush as God. Meanwhile Schnitzel wants out (“I want a mike in my wig and a battery pack on my arse”). Franz derides his ambition: “Do you want to end up as a Muppet with someone’s hand up your arse?” Crudely and sometimes subtly paralleling Carl and Tinka’s tragedy, the comics jibe about left and right wing politics, freedom and power. Schnitzel senses something more than Franz is manipulating him. “What is up there?” he cries and scales the curtain to come face to face with Burkett. Of manipulators and the manipulated, John Howard too makes an appearance as Howard the Bear, Schnitzel’s toy companion—allowing for a string of puppet-of-the-US jokes (Burkett is Canadian).

Schnitzel’s identity crisis, and his curiosity as to whether or not he’s a sentient being, resolves anxiously “in a nasty thought.” Typical of Burkett’s play with our emotions (this a puppet show for adults in which we are prompted to feel and behave like children), the seriousness or sentimentality of the moment is often brutally undercut. Here, Schnitzel looks out at us and confesses that “the nasty thought was…that I was just like you.” Pathos, postmodern banter, satire and a dash of metaphysics are kept finely balanced, and nothing undercuts Carl’s refusal to compromise and his impending death, another moment where creator and marionette come painfully face to face.

Listen out for the Radio National recording of the interview Robyn Archer did with the affable, jocular and loquacious Burkett in the Spiegeltent. It’s very revealing about his origins as an artist, puppetry in North America, the scale of his work and timeframe (6 months a year in the studio, then tour), government funding traps, the role of repertoire, and his other puppet-free lives as actor and playwright. As in performance, he’s a deft improviser and joker—about choosing a career path, he quipped, “If I’d known about Puppetry of the Penis, I could have merged my 2 great interests.”

Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, Tinka’s New Dress, created & performed by Ronnie Burkett, music, sound design Cathy Nosaty, lighting Leo Wieser, Brain Kerby, George Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 17-27.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 5

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002