Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre
Adapted by Steven Bogart and Wendy Lement
Based on the book The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Directed by Steven Bogart
Music directed/composed by Mary Bichner
Choreographed by Patricia Manalo Bochnak
Dramaturg: Kate Snodgrass
Sign Performers: Jola Leary, Adrianna Kathryn Neefus, Desiree Weems Sheppard
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) Many years ago, when I was a burgeoning opera singer, I attempted to read Collodi’s Pinocchio in the original Italian to learn the language. Pinocchio, originating as a series of short stories in an Italian magazine, is a convoluted tale of dramatic proportions about a little wooden puppet-boy who gets into scrapes only to be saved by those who inexplicably love him. Pinocchio has no social skills, no respect, and no discipline. Yet,his father Geppetto and the Blue Fairy are devoted anyway. I read about ¾ of the book on my journey towards bilingualism. Considering my penchant for justice and the frequency in which Pinocchio is rewarded for his bad behavior, I’m surprised I slogged through as much as I did.
Wheelock’s production of Pinocchio is not your daddy’s interpretation of the Italian classic. It is much darker and its modern spin twirls above and beyond the imaginations of the Disney franchise. We are introduced to a severely depressed Gepetto (Steven Barkhimer) still recovering from the death of his wife (Jordan Clark). In order to shake him up, his dead wife gives him a sociopathic wood gnome with impulse control problems and the attention span of a goldfish on crack. Seems fair. Geppetto carves out the energetic little puppet only for it to create endless amounts of mayhem and mischief. Pinocchio (Sirena Abalian) lands Geppetto in jail, hangs out with thugs, kills a cricket (Geoff Van Wyck) and a Blue Fairy (Caroline Workman), permanently enslaves his best friend to indentured servitude, and only repents when he’s completely out of options. When analyzed closely, Collodi’s Pinocchio is a lot less family-friendly and much more “Saturday night freak show.” In all seriousness, this puppet is one bong hit away from being judged by his peers in a court of law. But I digress…
Wheelock’s production incorporates Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatre into its staging and design. The mask and conventional, shadow, found, Bunraku puppetry work is exceptional, definitely kid friendly. By extension, the lyric choreography by Patricia Manalo Bochnak is accessible to a grander audience. Her dance enables the the ensembles to use great skill and simple movements to portray human, animal and conceptual characters. Their stylized movements are less human and more life-sized puppetry.
Sirena Abalian returns to the Wheelock stage as the title character. She has endless energy and brings likability to this cheeky puppet.
Shelley Bolman and Christopher James Webb are hilarious as the Cat and Fox. These thugs are clearly up to no good but aim to give the audience as good time while they’re at it.
The ensemble is also notable for its creative efforts as a chorus and as set pieces. The minimalist set design necessitates the ensemble’s use of their bodies to convey environment as well as passage of time. Both adult and child actors work well together as a cohesive unit to tell the story physically when words are given to lead characters only. Kids and parents alike looking to get involved in professional children’s theatre should pay close attention. This is the high standard which they should pursue.
The composed incidental music by Mary Bichner serves as an emotional barometer for the production. It is a delight to the senses. Had Pinocchio listened to Bichner’s score as the play unfolded, he would surely have been saved from oodles of trouble. Her score syncs with the actors and is equally as charged as the actions on stage.
Parents must be aware that Pinocchio has some dark undertones that may affect sensitive children. The themes of unprovoked cruelty, greed, bullying, death, and physical violence are discussed by the script. Frequently these themes are explored in great detail. For example, Pinocchio is turned into a donkey. When Donk-nocchio doesn’t perform as his keeper desires, Donk-nocchio is whipped. We don’t see the blood or gore but we don’t have to in order for it to traumatize.
Pinocchio is beautifully tailored and gives us an interesting take on the Italian classic. The script and stage treatments are a wild success. Regardless, parents should discuss this cautionary tale of what happens to selfish children who disobey their parents. Talents of outspoken rebelliousness should be used for Good, not Bad.