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Puppetry asks:

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In Provenance, puppeteer Ronnie Burkett is faced with a complex task. Not only does he have to create an interesting story and believable characters, both through a powerful script and talented acting, but he has to do so through inanimate objects.

Given the subject matter, this is no easy task.

Provenance follows Pity Beane, a young art student who leaves Canada in search of a painting she's become obsessed with. The play begins as she nears the end of a journey that took her across the Atlantic and through Europe, ending in a Vienna brothel.

Tracing the history--or provenance--of the painting, which features a young, nude boy named Tender, the play explores the lives of the various characters she encounters, all while exploring the nature and definition of beauty. Along the way, Burkett handles some tough subjects--rape, incest, violence and homosexuality, to name a few.

No easy task, indeed.

Despite the challenges involved in such a technically and theatrically complex piece, Burkett moves through the two-hour play with little difficulty, and there's no shortage of elements to appreciate.

The story and the script are both powerful and insightful. Every character has a purpose, and contributes to Pity's--and Burkett's--search for both the painting and personal fulfillment, all of which seems to be centered around one central question: what is beauty?

Fans of his last work, Happy, need to seriously reconsider their expectations as this is not a repeat of the linear story and punchy wit of his 2000 production.

While there are tremendously funny moments, Provenance is at its heart a drama, and a powerful one at that. Beautiful and joyous events are sandwiched between harrowing tragedies, a contrast skillfully contributing to the progression and growth of the story and characters.

Burkett's performance as both puppeteer and actor is stunning. The marionettes move with life-like realism as they dance about and interact on stage. There are many moments throughout the play where one might forget they are puppets at all, as they seem to take on lives of their own. This is coupled with Burkett's flawless acting, providing the voices for an ensemble of intriguing and believable characters.

Different from past performances is Burkett's increased personal involvement. Burkett uses hand puppets and headbands, which hold just a head extending in front of his face while his hands and body become that of the character. Some of these new additions risk breaking an otherwise successful illusion, since we are no longer asked to imagine the characters completely independent from the puppeteer. Still, Burkett mostly succeeds in using a format few will be familiar with to tell a fresh story.

Provenance runs through Sun., Apr. 4 at the Martha Cohen Theatre. For tickets call 294-7402.

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