Courtesy Alberta Theatre Projects

Ronnie Burkett dazzles with dolls

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"This shouldn't happen on opening night," said a confused Ronnie Burkett as one of his marionettes malfunctioned on the first night of the Alberta Theatre Projects 34th season and his new play 10 Days on Earth.

The puppet's head had turned around in the middle of a scene as it lay on the ground. Burkett improvised his way through the mix up, never breaking character, making the discombobulated puppet rise into the sky by repeating a sacred word, adjusting the puppets head, and quickly ending the scene. As embarassing as a puppet malfunction can be to a puppeteer, it was the only misstep in an otherwise perfect performance of 10 Days.

Admittedly, the show was still painful to watch, just not because of the quality. Ten Days is the story of a middle-aged simpleton, Darrel, who lives with his mother. Early in the play, his mother dies, yet Darrel doesn't understand why she won't leave her room. Instead, he invents reasons for her to be angry with him, each more heartbreaking than the last.

One day he gives his sandwich to a crazy homeless friend, Lloyd, and another he's late coming home. Darrel pleads with his mother's door, but it offers no answer. He apologizes, but no forgiveness is given. The door remains as lifeless as the woman behind it.

The heavy scenes are broken up well by the whimsical adventures of Honey Dog and Little Burp, two characters from Darrel's favourite book. Honey Dog and Little Burp's story runs parallel to Darrel's own, as they try to find a home and are helped along the way by various animals.

While Burkett's clever writing and voice work take center stage, the true stars of the play are the marionettes. At the outset, the beautifully-crafted wooden creations come off as creepy. As the show goes on, though, their uncanny realism makes it tough to differentiate them from real flesh-and-blood people. What's even more impressive is how easily Burkett plays on this concept, manipulating the audience's emotions as easily as he manipulates his marionettes. The "puppeteer" takes on new meaning.

Burkett controls each of the puppets' voices and actions, and brings a unique character to each of his creations. With over a dozen characters in the play, it's an impressive endeavor keeping different personalities straight. In scenes with three characters on the stage at the same time, it's hard to believe it's all being done by one guy.

Burkett does well to live up to his reputation in 10 Days, bringing strong emotional resonance to the world of wooden dolls.

Despite the equipment malfunction, 10 Days on Earth is still one of the best times anyone can have watching a guy play with puppets this side of Mr. Rodgers.