A blockheaded wooden puppet is hero of Pinocchio, a cautionary tale for children about the importance of obedience winsomely staged in a co-production between the Faction of Fools and NextStop theatre companies.
Faction of Fools specializes in the masked physical comedy of Commedia dell’Arte, while NextStop is a small local theater with a standard repertory. Both are venturing into relatively new territory—family theater—with this production.
They seem to be on solid ground from the get-go—selling kid-(and adult) friendly popcorn in the lobby and greeting patrons with a cherry red painted wooden puppet proscenium that makes you want to go poking around for Punch and Judy.
The tale of Pinocchio’s efforts to grow from a marionette into a “real boy” is told by the troupe of mostly masked actors, who handle narrating duties while slipping behind a series of brightly painted curtains to switch characters and grab a puppet or two.
The show starts off comically, as Geppetto (Toby Mulford) decides to make a puppet from a block of wood—which starts talking away before he even gets chance to use his chisel. This reminds you of the remark attributed to the sculptor Michelangelo, who said that his statues were imprisoned in the perfect piece of marble and it was his task to set them free.
Pinocchio (a sprightly Jack Novak) springs from the wood and he is a dandy little fellow—although a bit wobbly at first with walking, answering the door and other concepts patiently demonstrated by Geppetto in an Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?”-style slapstick exchange.
Pretty soon, Pinocchio gets the hang of things and it is off to school. Yet, the puppet is as easily distracted as a toddler with a shiny object. After selling his ABCs book, Pinocchio strolls into a puppet theater and is so entertained by the goings-on that he jumps into the show—much to the consternation of the tyrannical theater owner, Fire-Eater (Justin Purvis).
Fire-Eater wants to teach the puppets a lesson by throwing one of them into the fire, but Pinocchio’s guilelessness melts his heart—and wallet—to the point that he not only spares their wooden hides but gives Pinocchio gold coins to bestow on Geppetto.
What are the chances those coins will make it home with Pinocchio in charge? Pinocchio is full of promises to himself and the Blue Fairy (Hannah Sweet) that he will be good from now on, but he’s too full of trust and curiosity to make it stick. En route to home, Pinocchio is bamboozled by a Fox (Mulford again) and a Cat (Sweet again)—two tail-swishing courteous con-artists—and is nearly turned into a donkey along with other schoolboys who play hooky and go to the amusement park Funtown.
Closes March 30, 2014
NextStop Theatre atIndustrial Strength Theatre
269 Sunset Business Park
50 minutes with no intermission
Saturdays and Sundays
However, Pinocchio’s biggest challenge is his fibbing, which causes his nose to grow to the point where a leaf sprouts from its tip, an effect adroitly handled by the quick nose-changing artist Novak. After a harrowing encounter in the mouth of a sea beast, Pinocchio finally understands that stretching the truth is not going to get him any closer to flesh and blood status. And speaking of flesh and blood, he also realizes that families come in many forms.
Despite a noticeable sag in energy about mid-way through, Pinocchio engagingly conveys the story of an impetuous, people-pleasing boy searching for a sense of belonging. The cast creates multiple characters with zest and detail, especially Purvis’ French-speaking pigeon and Alani Kravitz as a fussbudget Cricket who annoyingly always turns out to be right.
Faction of Fools and NextStage’s collaboration proves to be a real treat for family audiences looking for a fresh take on an oft-told tale.
Pinocchio! . Written and directed by Paul Reisman . Based on the novel by Carlo Collodi .Featuring Jack Novak, Toby Mulford, Hannah Sweet, Justin Purvis, and Alani Kravitz. Costume design: Lynly Saunders . Mask design: Tara Cariaso with additional masks by Aaron Cromie . Scenic Design: Daniel Flint . Original Music: Jesse Terrill . Puppets and Properties Design: Dan Mori . Produced by NextStop Family Theatre and Faction of Fools Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.