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Tuesday, 19 November 2013 17:12

'Pinocchio': A fun production, but the adapter's nose grows just a little.

Written by Steve Callahan
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The Details

  • Director: Hugo Belanger
  • Dates: November 16-17, 2013
'Pinocchio':  A fun production, but the adapter's nose grows just a little.

Pinocchio has been with us for a hundred and fifty years now, delighting readers of all ages and frightening those of tender years.  Last week-end COCA brought us an admirable staging of Carlo Collodi's beloved tale, produced by the Théâtre Tout à Trac from Canada[1].  It was part of the company's premiere English-language tour of this show.

Collodi's original book leads our wooden protagonist through a lengthy picaresque series of unfortunate events.  This adaptation, by Hugo Bélanger, necessarily condenses Collodi's sprawling tale into some seventy minutes or so.  It's targeted to an audience of five-to-nine-year-olds, I would say, but its charm extends well beyond that range.

Everyone knows the story:  a talking log of wood seems to want to become a marionette;  old Gepetto carves the marionette and names him Pinocchio ("pine-seed"), and lo, the marionette can not only talk, but can quickly get into all kinds of mischief.  In the original story Pinocchio is really quite a brat.  One might even call him a "sociopath," but only in the sense that any two-year-old is a sociopath—innocently unable to think of anyone's desires but his own.  But Pinocchio appears more like a ten-year-old.  And his continual yielding to temptation sinks him into trouble after trouble.

The design aspects of this show are quite wonderfully imaginative!  The set first appears as Gepetto's toy-shop, hung with wooden toys.  The shop itself could have been carved.  It's all cartoonish, with shelves out of kilter and with a great round clock-like window that later serves magically in other scenes.

Adapter/director Hugo Bélanger keeps the action quick and bright, and tells the whole story with only four actors.  A young actress plays Pinocchio throughout, speaking his lines and deftly carrying and manipulating a life-size wooden puppet.  At times she seems to actually be Pinocchio;  at other times we see the puppet as Pinocchio.  It's a device that works beautifully, and at the end, when Pinocchio becomes a real boy, the actress simply and gracefully takes on the entire persona as the wooden puppet is discarded.

(And, yes, the little liar's nose grows most magically when he tells a fib!)

Three other actors play variously Gepetto, the Fox, the Cat, the terrifying Puppetmaster, the Blue Fairy and other roles—including a deliciously presented Talking Cricket.  As with the role of Pinocchio, with the Cricket the puppet and the puppeteer simultaneously act this role.  The actor/puppeteer, in black overalls, an aviator's helmet and goggles, with some antennae, is a charming magnified version of this insect.  The actor wields a very long, springy wire with a tiny illuminated cricket-puppet at the end.  We see this tiny puppet mostly as a dot of light—rather like Tinkerbell—and it's capable of making great, instant leaps about the stage.

The wicked Fox and his gormless henchman, the Cat, are beautifully costumed and masked, and they give performances of immense energy.

The fierce puppetmaster, Mangiafuoco (Fire-eater), is a comic delight.  He's Muppetish—like a wild combination of Oscar the Grouch and the crazy drummer, Animal.  When he gets his dander up his eyes flash and his huge black beard twinkles with a thousand fiery red lights.

So it's an exciting and entertaining show.  But it's not quite what it could have been.

First of all, the music:  there are occasional songs throughout, but they are generally in the pop genres:  a little Andrew Lloyd Webber, even some straight-out R & B.  Surely America's children get enough exposure to popular music.  Surely we could find something more appropriate for "Pinocchio":  a concertina, an accordion, a simple flute.  Or in Toyland, that carnival land of play and candy for truant-boy lotus-eaters, perhaps a calliope.

And several of the songs are simply too long.

But more importantly, there is nothing of the darkness that drifts through Collodi's original story.  Here the adapter, like so many modern writers for children, trusts neither the original text nor the emotional resilience of child audiences.  The Fox and Cat are merely feckless simpletons;  they should be a real, scary threat.  The ferocious Mangiafuoco must be terrifying;  in this production he is only rather silly.  The children in the audience should be a little frightened, but as they sit beside a loving parent they will be enabled to deal with fear.

So, for veering from the real truth of the Pinocchio story, adapter Bélanger's nose grows just a little.

Finally, let me comment on one particularly irritating aspect of this afternoon's performance:  The managements of many theatre companies have an irresistible impulse to subject their captive audiences to incessant merchandizing before each performance.  In my long crusade against curtain-speeches I've broken many lances against the seemingly adamantine shield of obliviousness that protects that impulse.  But the curtain speech before "Pinocchio" forces me to leap once more into the fray.  It consisted of the usual thanks and polishing of images for corporate and wealthy donors, as well as some shilling for future COCA productions and classes.  And it lasted almost eight minutes!  This would be intolerable enough for an adult audience, but it is cruelly inconsiderate when the seats are filled with two hundred or so little children eagerly anticipating "PINOCCHIO!"  That curtain-speech took almost ten percent of the time we spent in the theatre and it was a tedious waste of time for all those kids.

Please, please!  Spare us these curtain speeches!

Despite these reservations, COCA's presentation of "Pinocchio", by the Théâtre Tout àTrac was a charming show that pleased its young audience.

[1] Tout à Trac:  "Everything jitters" or "all is nervous".

Additional Info

  • Director: Hugo Belanger
  • Dates: November 16-17, 2013

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