Where: The House Theatre of Chicago at The Chopin Theatre
1543 W. Division St.
When: through May 19
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Don’t expect the world premiere of “Pinocchio” at The House Theatre of Chicago to be anything like the beloved Disney film.
Inspired by Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fairy tale “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” company members Joseph Steakley and Ben Lobpries have written a story for our time. Their little wooden puppet, who loves learning unlike the lazy original, encounters a dystopian world of bullies and bureaucrats and survives his misadventures convinced that it is alright to be different and that everything will be fine as long as we learn to accept and love each other. Although he laments not being a real boy at one point, his goal isn’t to become one.
He even enlightens his fearful “father” Geppetto (Molly Brennan), who starts out wanting to keep the boy he’s carved hidden from harm. This is a coming-of-age tale, but the journey from innocence to understanding doesn’t end happily-ever-after or in disenchantment.
And what a boy this Pinocchio is! Designed by Tom Lee of Chicago Puppet Studio, the three-foot-tall Bunraku-style puppet more-or-less “emerges” from a charred log Geppetto finds in the forest the locals burned down because they were afraid of imaginary dangers lurking there. His large head still resembles a tree trunk, except for the lively moving eyes. His mouth, however, is immobile, so the overall effect is eerie.
Add the skill and personality of principal puppeteer Sean Garratt, one of the creators of the marvelous Moses in “The Table,” and Pinocchio is … well, the best thing about “Pinocchio.” He seems alive and inanimate simultaneously, which is completely captivating.
The second-best thing is Pinocchio’s relationship with a couple of the human characters. Some of the scenes with Brennan’s tough but vulnerable Geppetto, who has seen too much of the town’s prejudice and cruelty to be as optimistic as the “son” he initially disavows, are truly touching, while others are delightfully funny. His friendship with Romeo (Brandon Rivera), the boy who tries to protect him and also is “different,” has its moments, especially since Pinocchio is by far the smarter of the two.
Unfortunately, the villains of the piece are treated with such a heavy hand by the cast and director Chris Mathews that their cartoonish-ness undermines the potential magic of the evening. They include the perpetually promoted military man Doohickey (Kevin Strangler), student bullies Kitty and Dingo (Carley Cornelius and Omer Abbas Salem), and school authority Miss Penny (Christine Mayland Perkins), who believes that anything natural needs to be tamed. A certain self-consciously smarmy tone exacerbates the problem.
Apart from Garratt’s amazing puppetry, sometimes with a little help from other cast members, the stagecraft varies in quality. Scenic designer Joe Schermoly and lighting designer Alexander Ridgers do a nice job with the enchanted forest, which is presided over by the Blue Fairy (Karissa Murrell Myers), who sings haunting songs composed by Matthew Muñiz. She wears a rather odd furry cloak by costume designer Anna Wooden, whose more conventional outfits seem to date to the 1940s.
The least successful puppet is Pinocchio’s buddy Mr. Cricket, who is voiced by a mandolin, attached to a skinny pole, and mostly hops around, too small to really see from quite a few rows. On opening night, the special effect of Pinocchio and Geppetto being swallowed by a white cloth “beast” that vaguely suggested a shark or whale fell completely flat. Ditto when they were disgorged.
My overall advice on “Pinocchio”: Go for the puppet, and don’t worry too much about the rest.