Canadian Stage presents Ronnie Burkett and his Theatre of Marionettes with a bawdy take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Little Dickens, Burkett invites the audience to join the colourful cast of his Daisy Theatre in a vaudevillian, cabaret-style retelling of the classic. In the Scrooge role, aging actress Esmé Massengill—a Norma Desmond-esque diva—bah-humbugs herself into spiteful isolation on Christmas Eve when she discovers no audience is there to see her act.
Various Daisy Theatre troupe members embody other characters from the classic. Those familiar with these figures and their dynamic may get some added context, but the vibe of this rag-tag thespian troupe is established well enough here. As Esmé goes through the iconic redemptive-arc motions of the story—reliving her past, gaining perspective into her present and seeing the awful future that awaits if she doesn’t right her selfish, self-absorbed ship—we are treated to a delightful, self-aware spectacle.
The artifice of theatrical presentation and the specific mechanics of puppeteering figure prominently. Burkett is a master of immersive presentation; he and his marionette characters acknowledge the cumbersome aspects of the show yet never break its spell. At key moments, audience members are invited up on stage to participate. Burkett is so bursting with charisma that even the more playfully lecherous bits—he’s always trying to get men’s shirts off—are disarming. He mines the unique interactions to set-up clever improvisational running gags.
With graceful momentum, Burkett pulls us into this pantomime world. He draws from familiar stock elements and makes them feel fresh. Canadian theatre references are blended with charming homages to Old Hollywood. Jesus even appears to offer a hilariously irreverent reminder that it’s all about him. The most moving segments come from the decidedly sincere character of Schnitzel taking on the Tiny Tim persona. His asides to the audience are truly poignant. Despite the dreary reality of his puppet existence, he wishes us Christmas cheer.
Ronnie Burkett is a delightful showman. He fosters a warm and inclusive atmosphere that is deliberately crafted yet completely genuine. Giddy, freewheeling and risqué, Little Dickens also has a solid heart that captures the spirit of the season.