review by Cabot Parsons
Telling a multiple-generation dystopian tale of outlawing humanity in humans, as a solo act, would be daunting for the most seasoned puppet artist.
Originally published in The Puppetry Journal (Winter 2020 Vol. 71 No. 1 by Puppeteers of America)
We arrive in an industrial space—in this case, the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre rehearsal hall. Chairs and benches scatter the room, part summer garden party, part yard sale, under a canopy of carnival lights. Five large red boxes park themselves near the crossroads at the center of the space. For we have come to a crossroads: of ideas, of community, of a resistance to the powers that be. We are in the land of “Forget Me Not,” by master puppet artist Ronnie Burkett.
Soon Burkett enters in full incantation, shrouded in the robes of some secret society, a society we now represent. For unlike his well-known solo shows, this time there are over one hundred puppeteers. We, the audience, create the piece with him. He freely shares his secrets, like Penn and Teller share how the trick is done, and for that reason the magic is even more powerful. He walks his tiny marionettes (barely a foot tall) along our hands that form a path, and even gives them away to us to continue their journey. Burkett has thoughtfully left the torsos unjointed, so they glide erect even in the hands of amateurs. They alight in the laps of two viewers, and we begin to learn of the story of “She,” a woman who’s own heartbreak leads her to become a sage of love letters, at an oppressive time when both love and the written language are outlawed and punishable by death.
The story is told in the distant past, the recent past, and now. It is a story of hiding from authorities to behold the rituals that preserve the art of love. It is also told through a variety of puppets: string, rod, hand, and finger, in different scales. At first this seems confusing, but as the imaginative story progresses it serves to bracket the various stories in time, which have the scope and passion of a Russian novel. The bridge story involves a wearable “Punch” booth where seedy carny impresario Zacko Budaydos (say it aloud) loses his best—and only—act and finds forbidden love in the arms of a tattooed lady. His crushed tin-can crown foreshadows a family lineage of love and loss.
But mostly Burkett is at his most unhidden, in both person and soul. A celebrant for the rituals of the resistance, he pulls us further into his tale and leads us into a communion, where we receive neither bread nor wine but our own beautiful and enigmatic hand puppet for the evening, who will witness our own hearts and do in the story what we cannot. Any puppeteer knows the power in letting their puppet lead the way, but to watch an audience of non puppeteers take up the craft with such earnestness, to bond with their figures, to reach out across aisles and differences, and acknowledge both the major players and each other…well that is a story to behold.
The words of the characters are alive with their own music, but the rare moments when music is required, Burkett calls out “Maestro!” and a random audience member runs to a phonograph, where each short poignant score by John Alcorn has been pressed onto a vinyl record (a “45,” we used to call them). As the marionettes hide away for private conversation, audience members with flashlights follow and light their world, both witness and surveillance. Costumes for the puppets, by Kim Crossley, are simple but gossamer gown, fashioned from two antique handkerchiefs, seemingly sewn from memory itself.
Telling a multiple-generation dystopian tale of outlawing humanity in humans, as a solo act, would be daunting for the most seasoned puppet artist. To engage an entire audience in forming a community of puppeteers to enact that story under Burkett’s direction is a huge risk. Burkett becomes our lifeboat through the storm of his ideas, and he makes sure there is room for everyone.
It is every detail that makes this show so compelling. It is the sculpts, and the builds, the painting and the writing, the manipulation and vocal and physical performance. Burkett uses these basic building blocks to remind us of one true thing: that love is not just the best thing, it is the only thing worth fighting for. And it almost always hurts like hell.
“Forget Me Not” was also presented at the Fidena Festival, May 20-23, 2020 in Bochum Germany
Cabot Parsons is a puppeteer and visual theater artist living in Beacon, New York.