At The Neo-Futurarium
A Mash-Up of Two Made Men.
This is not your father’s Pinocchio. In point of fact, it’s more your grandfather’s. The original tale by Carlo Collodi, begun in 1881, was not originally intended to be a children’s story. It would be his publisher that would convince him to continue his dark tale and turn it into a novel genre at the time—children’s literature. Pinocchio’s adventures are dark and disturbing in the manner of fairy tales, before people like the brothers Grimm and Disney got their commercialization-oriented hands on them to whitewash their disturbing darkness for more palatable pap. The nameless pastiche created by Dr. Frankenstein (don’t dare call him ‘Frankenstein’) is post-patricide and sees a kindred spirit in the fairy tale of another manufactured man. As an intriguing mash-up, Pinocchio is full of contrasts and parallels. It’s an entertaining production, but the balance between tragedy and comedy (normally a staple for the Neo-Futurists) here feels disappointingly sided in favor of funny.
The nameless wretch (Guy Massey) created by Dr. Frankenstein narrates Pinocchio’s adventures Masterpiece-Theater style, interjecting to bitterly (and sometimes jealously) comment upon and propel the narrative. The wooden boy (Robert Fenton) is fashioned in the form of a child, and despite being a soulless brat, gets the forgiveness never given to the one fashioned into a monster. Following the major points of Collodi’s tale, the monster recounts Pinocchio’s inadvertent growth from a gullible, selfish rascal to a proper boy worthy of being a real man. Pinocchio’s adventures have the sort of allegorical surreality common in fairy tales. The audience has to give in to the absurdity in a manner akin to watching Alice in Wonderland (written a few decades prior). Collodi’s tale is mostly intact, restored to that original surrealness. Writer/director Greg Allen has added in a few even darker moments in an attempt to meld the puppet and the monster. Fans of Disney’s revision will be disturbed while purists rejoice.
Brimming with the kind of zany energy audiences have come to expect from the Neo-Futurists, Pinocchio has the usual meta-comedic timing, stylistic inclusions and audience interaction that distinguish their productions. The addition of actual puppets of multiple varieties adds an extra level of visual poetry. Massey is creepy and tortured as the composite creature whose own pop culture washings have made him less—not more—sympathetic. He’s rancorous, wheezing out example after example of how the puppet got what he never could achieve but was still able to overcome the nature of a his origin simply because he didn’t look like a monster. Fenton imbues Pinocchio with an impish energy and fearless ability for pratfall, ever supported by his witless creator Geppetto (Dan Kerr-Hobert). His performance is appropriate for a circus-like atmosphere, but doesn’t evince the kind of underlying humanity that would have brought him more in line with his monstrous “brother.”
Past efforts by the Neo-Futurists have demonstrated a canny ability to bring forth humanity mingled with absurdity, from the poignant Roustabout to the sublime Burning Bluebeard. It’s not to say that they must be held to that same standard in each outing, but if that’s the stated goal, the production must be able to fully commit to the darkness it unearths—from both the characters and pop culture—throughout. Pinocchio does its best to explore themes of forgiveness and overcoming basic nature, but falls prey to vulgarity and humor too frequently to take itself as seriously as it should given the timeless gravity of such ideas. [Spoiler Alert] A literal twist ending seems a disingenuous surprise, creating a backward tonal shift that undoes much of the goodwill theretofore earned. On paper, the twist might have seemed inevitable. In practice, it feels exploitative.
Had it been able to strike a proper balance, Pinocchio would have been a fantastic thematic exploration between two archetypal characters searching for a soul with very different intentions. Such as is stands, Pinocchio is an entertaining diversion. It’s disappointing that it is mostly to be appreciated for its theatrics and not the vast depths of tortured exploration tantalizingly stated but frustratingly undermined.
Date Reviewed: March 10, 2012
For more info checkout the The Strange & Terrible True Tale of Pinocchio (The Wooden Boy) as Told by Frankenstein’s Monster (The Wretched Creature) page on www.neofuturists.org
At The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60640, call 773.275.5255, or www.neofuturists.org, tickets $20, $10 for students (with pay-what-you-can Thursdays); Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm; running time is 2 hours 15 min. with 10 minute intermission; through April 14.