In the Disney version of the story, Geppetto and Pinocchio are swallowed by Monstro the whale. In Collodi’s version, they end up inside a giant dogfish. This re-invention of this critical moment offered Sutton the perfect opportunity to subtly acknowledge the Disney link while incorporating major thematic elements. The Dogfish would become a ride in a rundown seaside amusement park. “I tried to think of how Monstro, the whale from the movie, the dogfish from the book, would manifest in the world today,” she recalls, “And what I saw was this terrifying little ride, this piece of entertainment, both real and not real, both a physical and metaphysical thing that affected everyone around it.”
For Sutton and the company, the ride became a visceral exploration of the story, “You are having a real experience of a fake thing — it’s a story that eats you up literally and figuratively.” It also neatly revealed those thematic elements. “The themes of the story explored growth through pain, second chances, unconditional love, and growing into maturity in a chaotic, unreliable, and sometimes harsh world. When I was working on our adaptation, all those things came together into two larger themes: what is Real vs. Not Real, and the controlling nature of fear.” On the design side, the ride would climax in a 3D sequence.
With the ride in place as a central metaphor, Cawelti was able to give free reign to the imaginations of his designers. Scenic designer Francois-Pierre Couture would be responsible for the all-important look of the production. “With inspiration taken from old amusement parks, abandoned fishing villages and macabre images of spooky places, the production’s aesthetic is a mashup of many influences,” Cawelti reveals. “Light plays a huge part of making anything atmospheric and our lighting designer Brandon Baruch and I collaborated on creating a palette and approach that treats much of the piece as if it were a puppet show lighting only from the sides and top.”
The work of the actors in a Rogue production is just as specific and challenging as creating the mis en scene. Ben Messmer has performed in three previous Rogue productions and he freely admits that taking a role in a Rogue production of this magnitude is daunting, but the project drew him. “The story is so rich and moving to me, I had to be involved,” Messmer explains. “I was attracted to the role because of how damaged Geppetto was. And he gets to create and connect with this magnificent creation. I feel very lucky. I started working with this company because I’ve never seen a group paint such a vivid portrait onstage. No one does exactly what they do with so many mediums.”
If rehearsing Wood Boy Dog Fish is an intimidating task for veteran performers, it is doubly so for actors cast in their first Rogue production. During the first weeks of rehearsal, the cast attended a Rogue “boot camp” where they work on movement, object manipulation and creating a shared vocabulary specific to the production. Cawelti adds that “the Rogue style is a bit theatrical with focus on breath, specificity and harmony of movement on the stage.”
Rudy Martinez is new to the company and, along with catching up on the Rogue style, he plays the central role of The Puppet, which is how the Pinocchio figure is designated in this production. He is tasked with voicing the role and manipulating The Puppet, while remaining invisible to the audience. Martinez confesses that this created a huge learning curve. “It’s a Bunraku-inspired puppet, and it takes three people to operate. Two highly skilled puppeteers, Mark Royston and Lisa Dring, joined me and together we spent weeks rehearsing in front of mirrors, figuring out how to do even the simplest of things like standing up, or sitting down.”
In the final moments of the show, The Puppet finally gains a name and his humanity. The draperies, which have shrouded Martinez throughout the evening, drop away and he is left onstage, visible and vulnerable. “I always feel so exposed in that moment. I’ve spent an hour and a half performing through The Puppet’s body, but in the end it’s just me and I can’t hide. I have to put everything out there on display, which makes me feel vulnerable, but that’s also what an actor hopes to achieve. It has immense meaning for me, especially since one of the main themes is ‘becoming real.’ That final moment is the first time in the play that I look anyone else in the eye. It’s a profound moment.”
NOW PLAYING: WOOD BOY DOG FISH, through December 12 at Bootleg Theater.
In this world-premiere play for mature audiences, the cricket is killed, Blue haunts us all, and the legendary Dogfish monster preys on our greatest fears in the tumbledown tourist trap amusement park of Shoreside, where a little wooden puppet comes to life at the hands of the wood-maker Geppetto.