When Robyn Archer launched the Melbourne Festival earlier in the year she warned one performance had an ending more shocking than anything she’d seen on stage.

The fact she was talking about a puppet show made it more intriguing.

Provenance, by Canadian performer Ronnie Burkett, tells of Pity, the daughter of a same-sex couple, who becomes obsessed with the origins of a painting. During her investigations she meets marionette sex workers, ageing cabaret singers and a roller-skating monkey, before finally discovering that the picture means -“
But Burkett doesn’t say, although the origin of the play gives some clues.

I was reading in the newspaper one morning about a Canadian museum that had some paintings that were of -˜a dubious provenance’, Burkett explained, by phone from Toronto.

They weren’t sure of the immediate history of ownership, especially immediately after World War II -¦ It just struck me that provenance is an interesting word because I think we all have our own provenance, our own history of ownership -¦ we are at times -˜owned’ by other people, be it parents, or institutions, or schools, or governments, or even partners -¦

Burkett’s Theatre of Marionettes was founded in 1986, the result of Burkett’s earlier training with Bill Baird, the man responsible for the Lonely Goatherd number in The Sound Of Music.

It was Baird who instilled in Burkett the love of the marionette, which became his puppet of choice. (Each type of puppet has a different strength, Burkett said. Rod puppets are stately and elegant for instance, while hand puppets are rustic.)

Burkett’s aesthetic might have developed very differently. When he met Baird in the late 70s it was just as The Muppet Show was booming, an event Burkett said changed puppetry forever.

I see so many young puppeteers now who, even if they’re doing theatre, are influenced totally by a Muppet aesthetic, Burkett said. In Avenue Q now, we’re seeing a style of puppet that was developed exclusively for television, being used on the Broadway stage -¦

The mention of Avenue Q is striking, as the musical also features a rare appearance by gay puppet characters, although the focus there is comedy. Burkett’s creations are very serious, and very human.

I’ve always had gay characters in my work, of all different stripes: gay men, lesbians, and not always sympathetic, because I don’t need to go down that road all the time, he said.

One show Streets Of Blood had a very angry gay terrorist character who was blowing up gay bars to get the complacent gay community angry again -¦

But Pity is an interesting character, because while we don’t see her father and his lover who co-raised her, she refers to them constantly, especially the lover, who she calls Uncle-Boyfriend -¦

I love her, actually. I find her very, very sweet, he said.

Provenance is playing at the Fairfax Studio in the Melbourne Arts Centre from 7 to 23 October. Phone 1300 136 166. Visit www.melbournefestival.com.au for more information.

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