by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
[dropcap]How[/dropcap] would you feel if, after Jiminy Cricket sang his falsetto paean to hope, the little wooden boy listening reached over, picked up a mallet, and smashed the cheery insect into oblivion? American audiences, steeped in Disney lore, will encounter this, along with several comparable shocks when they view the Rogue Artists Ensemble’s new production, Wood Boy Dog Fish.
This is not because the show is a sneering, Robot Chicken-like satire of Disney animation. On the contrary, the creative minds behind this adaptation of the Pinocchio story have the greatest respect for the Disney version. The difference is that, unlike those Disney storytellers, the Rogues studied the source material and decided not to soften the rough edges, or make the puppet more appealing, or simplify the moral ambiguities inherent in the tale.
Carlo Collodi’s Le avventure di Pinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio) is one of the most popular children’s books ever written. The marionette without strings, the wooden boy who longs to be real, the nose that grows when a lie is told—these canonical images are immediately recognizable. Collodi’s tale was written in the chaos of post-Risorgimento Italy and his thundering morality and stern warnings to respect authority mirrored the confusion of those times and his belief that Italians should quash their personal desires and channel their energies into the newly unified Italy.
The visually detailed brilliance and iconic images of the Disney film were devised to support a story that is admittedly darker than typical Disney fare, but differs greatly in tone and theme from Collodi’s book. It’s safe to say that the smoothly persuasive Disney version has basically hijacked the tale for English-speaking audiences. And, at this point, possibly only the Italians would be familiar enough with the original to recognize the differences.
It was probably inevitable that the Rogues would choose to dramatize their own version of the Pinocchio tale. Their chosen brand of storytelling is “Hyper-theater,” which combines traditional theatrical elements of puppetry, mask work, dance, music, and stage illusions with more cutting-edge technology. They also advocate a style of production in which the design concept is as important as the storytelling aspect.
Playwright Chelsea Sutton knew that the origin story of a famous fairy tale is often darker than the version American children learn. But she was unprepared for the enormous differences she would encounter when she read the original — differences that resulted in demands that Collodi’s editor made before agreeing to publish the book. As Sutton tells it, “Collodi originally ended his story with Pinocchio dying, hanging in a tree, so the whole second half of the novel, the part where the Blue Fairy comes into play, wasn’t part of his original plan. As a writer, I find that fascinating.”
Writing for the Rogues is a completely collaborative experience. It is not your typical sit-at-home-and-send-in-the-script kind of job. When Sutton came on board as playwright, she was joining an already evolving process. Ideas, design concepts and even possible outlines of the show had been discussed and worked on by the main development team and some company members. As she explains, “So my job was to not only take my own point of view and concept of the world and characters, but also the point of view of the company at large, and craft something that embodied what we, as a collective, wanted to say.” By the first rehearsal, Sutton estimated that she’d written 13 drafts of the script. During rehearsals she re-wrote, or revised every page of the script as new discoveries were made by the company.
Along with dramatizing a darker vision of the story, Sutton and Director/Puppet & Mask Designer, Sean T. Cawelti realized that the Disney version, with which most audience members would be familiar, was the elephant in the room. (No, not that large-eared elephant.) They began to explore ways to embrace the connection without detracting from their own story. As Cawelti explains, “It’s been a wonderful playground, finding moments to tip our hats to the incredible adaptation that Disney created. We try to not be too beholden to the Disney film, or have any expectation of what audiences will or won’t know.”