by Eleanor Albanese (adapted from the book by Carlo Collodi)
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, December 2005
Like most theatre companies -- perhaps, these days, most companies of whatever kind -- Theatre New Brunswick counts on a Christmas rush to help them survive the eleven months of the year in which people in our societies aren't engaged in the annual orgy of potlatch we call "the holiday season." In the case of theatre, what this comes down to is "the Christmas show" -- the one designed, at its best, to give parents who care about theatre, or think they should care about it, an occasion on which they can bring their kids out to experience the magic that happens on a stage when things go right and the people up there bring to the people out here an experience that can be far more transforming, because they're real, and live, and right here, than any movie or TV show.
Over the years I've watched Theatre New Brunswick (and other companies) meet this challenge the results have ranged from the miraculous to the money-grubbing. This year's offering, Eleanor Albanese's adaptation of the classic Pinocchio story by Carlo Collodi, certainly succeeds in showing the kids (and the rest of us) something of what can be achieved, right there in front of us, by imaginative and crafty staging and by an amazingly energetic and committed cast. I can't remember a production on the Playhouse stage that exemplified so many, and so many different, examples of ingenious stagecraft; nor one in which a cast worked any harder.
From the moment the six members of the cast appeared as a kind of motley Commedia del Arte troupe of musicians, to sing and play their welcome to the audience, the commitment of the company and the production to color, action, speed and volume was never in doubt. If nuances of language may have been lost in the stentorian stage-Italian accents (occasionally, in the case of Anthony Malarky's energetic and occasionally touching Puppet Master, verging on the Transylvanian), there was almost never a problem in figuring out what was going on. They were aided by a showily clever set, composed mostly of tall modular units which could wheel around or open up to show us, say, Geppetto's house or the Puppet Master's theatre (complete with giant marionettes).
Pulling a play out of Collodi's wandering, picaresque tale, though, poses real challenges (dozens of fims and stage adaptations have made runs at it, the best known being the Disney one). Most people know about Pinocchio's nose, but not many know that Collodi's tale -- originally published in serial form in 1880 -- is long, disconnected and episodic, and was originally designed not to show children a puppet turning into a real boy, but to show adults a puppet punished for being disobedient and irresponsible. Similarly, I suspect, not many kids these days know the more dramatic turns of the story: the accidental killing of the talking cricket, the episode where Pinocchio's feet are burned off, or the part where he runs off to the Land of Toys where little boys are transformed into donkeys.
This is made more complicated because, as in many dramatizations of well-known children's stories, there's a strong temptation to assume that the kids all know the story anyway and what they (and the adults accompanying them) want to see are the good bits. The consequence of this can be -- and in this case, is -- that what the evening amounts to is a series of pretty much detached events, with the show focusing on those that are most stageable and not bothering much with the connections between them (when there are any). If in this case many of the bits are pretty enjoyable, I still wish that, once we get the kids into the building, we could show them what theatre does best -- which is to engage us deeply with what we know is fake -- rather than simply amuse them with tricks and glitz.
That said, though, we need to acknowledge that the tricks and glitz are often a lot of fun. I especially liked the various ways in which the sea and Pinocchio's adventures in it are represented -- with a sheet representing waves, raised to show us the lost marionette (turned into a donkey) below them; or a shadow show on a screen, with the silhouette of the immense toothy shark (or was it a whale?) snapping up the puppet; or with the loose sheet with Geppetto's and Pinocchio's heads popping up through it here and there as they bob to the surface.
There are lots of problems as well, though, many of them connected to the episodic structure of the show. The regular rearrival of the Blue Faery to save Pinocchio is marked by a singularly ineffectual scattering of fairy dust on her exits, for example; and the "accidental" killing of the talking cricket seems singularly casual, even perfunctory. Changes in attitude (for instance, by the two boys Pinocchio is repeated tricked or seduced by) seem unmotivated. The shark/whale's sneezing that frees Pinocchio and Geppeto from their Jonah-like predicament seems pretty arbitrary (in other versions, they light a fire to provoke the sneeze).
The puppeteering, too, leaves something to be desired. Pinocchio himself, for example, is rather more limited than many such puppets I've seen that are manipulated by an onstage, conventionally invisible puppeteer. Ingrid Rae Doucet's flexible and sensitive voice and good sense of timing do, though, make up for the fact that her puppet has only a couple of gestures. The large marionettes Arlecchino and Columbina, in the puppet theatre, seemed unable to do much more than bounce up and down. And many children (like me) may have looked for more evidence of the one thing we all know about Pinocchio -- that his nose grew longer when he lied. Unfortunately, it only happens once in this show -- and, like much else in stories held together mainly by chronology, doesn't seem to have any consequences. Some of us in the audience wanted Pinocchio to get caught in another lie to see that nose bloom again.
In the last analysis, Pinocchio may have delighted and engaged many children (and adults) with the theatrics, the music, the wonderful sense of energy given off by the entire six-person company, as they dashed on and off stage as entirely new -- and entirely recostumed -- characters. It certainly showed all of us some of the miracles of storytelling that can be achieved with lighting, music, sets and bodies. But those of us who hoped for a taste of the really important magic of theatre -- the ability to engage us with characters and their aspirations, to care about what happens next -- went away . . . how shall I say? Entertained and at the same time disappointed.