A ticket to House Theatre’s new adaptation of PINOCCHIO is worth double the price. That’s because the company produces its visually-rich shows at Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park. Built as a nickelodeon in 1918 and converted to an arts complex in 1990, the structure retains much of its original architectural detail – plus assorted art, knickknacks and furniture that make for lively meandering. Drink in hand, you get a show before the show even starts.
It took a bit of persuasion to pry the audience away from the lobby areas and into their seats. But after that, House Theatre took full command. “This is the original social media,” proclaims Nathan Allen, co-founder and artistic director, as he instructs everyone to turn off their phones. The performance that follows is proof positive.
Mining PINOCCHIO’s original source
If you’re part of the U.S. population that knows PINOCCHIO mostly from the Disney movie, this production will put those animated images to rest. House Theatre, which specializes in storytelling via interdisciplinary stagecraft, mines the original source. Italian author Carlo Collodi wrote PINOCCHIO as a series for a children’s weekly magazine in 1881. Episodic and dark, PINOCCHIO really was like 19th century social media, using an illustrated narrative to convey messages to a wide audience.
Most memorable about House Theatre’s take on the puppet’s path from innocence to maturity is the puppet itself. Crafted by Chicago Puppet Studio, Pinocchio comes to life when Geppetto (played androgynously by Molly Brennan) pries his head from a charred piece of tree trunk. Once the rest of his body is fashioned, actor Sean Garratt manipulates and vocalizes the wooden boy so unobtrusively, the focus always stays on Pinocchio.
During physically demanding moments, other actors join with Garratt to make Pinocchio run, leap, dance and sing. House Theatre lives up to its reputation for creating magic through movement in these scenes. Thanks to the cast led by director Chris Mathews and choreographer Kasey Foster, they’re as fluid and agile as ballet.
House Theatre adaptation connects with today
Adapted by company members Joseph Steakley and Ben Lobpries, PINOCCHIO reinvents Collodi’s story as a parable for 21st century Americans. Geppetto, a natural loner, worries that Pinocchio will attract unwanted attention as a freakish hybrid of wooden toy and human being. Although unwilling to call Pinocchio his son, Geppetto is nonetheless afraid the authorities will take him away. The curtains must stay drawn and Pinocchio must not dance or sing. Is this a commentary on undocumented immigrants avoiding arrest? Or on disabled individuals becoming isolated from the community? Or people with non-conforming gender identities struggling to find their place? All such connections ran through this viewer’s mind.
Confined to Geppetto’s shop, Pinocchio consumes every book on the shelf, becoming so intellectually frustrated that he escapes to the local school. There he endures another societal ill – bullying. “You’re one of those home-schooled titmice,” sneers one boy. Pinocchio is a new kid who’s both too different and too bright for comfort. But Romeo, a conventionally human student, doesn’t mesh with the classroom zeitgeist any better than Pinocchio and the two become friends.
Inspired rather than discouraged, Pinocchio embarks on many adventures. There is schoolteacher Miss Penny who regards nature as “an impulse that must be restrained,” the wise Blue Fairy in the forest and traveling musicians who teach him to perform. For this viewer, PINOCCHIO gets weighed down by too many storylines that distract from Pinocchio and Geppetto’s journey to create their own unique family. But the script keeps the show on swift footsteps with its humor. The laughs emerge effortlessly, a reminder that the serious business of growing up is much easier when it also includes a healthy dose of funny business.
Molly Brennan, Sean Garratt, Kevin Stangler, Christine Mayland Perkins, Mike Mazzocca, Karissa Murrell Myers, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Carley Cornelius, Omer Abbas Salem, Brandon Rivera
Ben Lobpries & Joseph Steakey (adaptors), Chris Mathews (director), Kasey Foster (choreographer), Joe Schermoly (scenic designer), Anna Wooden (costumer designer), Alexander Ridgers (lighting designer), Kevin O’Donnell (sound designer), Chicago Puppet Studios (puppet design), Jamie Karas (props designer), Brian DesGranges (stage manager)
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Now through May 19
Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 PM
Sundays at 3 PM
1543 W. Division St.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.