One shudders somewhat to think of the grim provenance of “Provenance,” the latest piece from Ronnie Burkett and his Theater of Marionettes. When last seen at the Barbican, in 2001 with his ironically titled “Happy,” the Canadian puppeteer, now 46, was plunging his astonishing array of puppets into some disturbing waters, indeed. But that show seems a picnic by comparison with “Provenance,” which ends with a deceptively tranquil image of its central character skating. We see the tragicomically named Pity (short for Pittance) Beane, the bespectacled art history grad student and sometime prostitute, whirling her way about the stage while the text talks of “beauty” — and of a world whose ugliness threatens to send us all falling through the ice.
The realm inhabited by Burkett’s puppets has never been one given over to twee enchantment: The brochure for the show’s limited Barbican stand (part of the international BITE:04 season) makes clear that the show, lasting more than two hours without an intermission, “is not suitable for under-14s.”
After all, rare is the play featuring flesh-and-blood actors that includes a protracted homophobic assault and a (separate) male rape. To see those activities enacted by puppets is to gasp once again at the abiding fury of Burkett, their master manipulator, who evidently has a none-too-passive relationship with his work: Just over a year ago, he destroyed the delicate, complicated sets for his first three career-making shows, starting with “Tinka’s New Dress,” in effect silencing that phase of his art.
“Provenance” isn’t on a par with the Burkett pieces I have seen before: The narrative isn’t as confidently structured as it was in “Happy,” while the lapses into singing and verse don’t so much suggest Burkett pushing his talent in new directions as succumbing to the kind of self-indulgence that requires an outside eye, and quick.
More crucially, for all the pain coursing through a story that sometimes seems an expansion on the conceit of Tracy Chevalier’s novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring” — the sorrow in which apparently sublime art can be rooted — Burkett seems overinfatuated with his own authorial cleverness, at the expense of the piercing simplicity of feeling that, in “Provenance,” is almost entirely submerged.
Still, there’s real wisdom to Burkett’s remark, in a recent interview in the Guardian, about “shrinking people down to have a closer look.” Though his puppets are rarely more than 2½ feet tall, they emerge from the cupboards of the show’s semi-circular Art Nouveau set already larger-than-life.
That’s certainly the case with the sublimely fleshy Vespa Pooperman, resident commandant at the Viennese brothel to which Pity has repaired in search of the St. Sebastian-like painting that has transfixed Pity throughout her fairly piteous life. (Her “naked innocence,” it is decided, makes her an ideal whore.) And it’s true of the brothel’s willowy, mock-grandiose madame, Leda, and even of an athletic singing monkey called Plato — you will have gathered these aren’t the sorts of names, or puppets, that frequent “Avenue Q.”
Pity, in turn, is presented as “just a plain silly girl” whose story, presented piecemeal in flashbacks, turns out to be anything but ordinary or plain. Looking like a cross between the comicstrip character Little Lotta and actress Heather Matarazzo in “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” she’s a sweet-natured obsessive who was brought up by a gay father and his partner, “Uncle Boyfriend.”
But just as she learns to her horror the past that gave rise to the painting, so she will suffer her own abrasions along the way. Come the conclusion, and she and her beloved painting in a way are one: “Now I know how it feels,” Pity says, as she stares with newly acquired self-knowledge at the beautiful boy in the canvas, whose naked shivering she has come to share.
Any show with a character called Leda is bound to contain a reference to a “dying swan,” who here is said to be “bleeding,” as well. Such wounds may not be the destination one expects to arrive at from first sight of the robust, antic Burkett, whose interplay with the puppets (one hugs him, another sits on his shoe) is less that of the avuncular showman than of some slightly mad emcee, his eyes appropriately ablaze.
But for all the seductions contained in Burkett’s opening command to “follow my voice,” the path he travels is once again strewn with woe. He and his wooden creatures are on a quest for beauty that leads them directly to the beast.