"The Strange and Terrible True Tale of Pinocchio (the Wooden Boy) As Told by Frankenstein's Monster (the Wretched Creature)"
Walt Disney had a knack for boiling fairy tales down to their least-objectionable essence, and of the many dank Old World narratives transformed into something far less gloomy for American palates, Pinocchio is among the more enduring. And yet: "Everybody knows his story wrong!"
That's a line spoken by Frankenstein's monster (more on that in moment), but it might as well be playwright Greg Allen himself talking, because that's precisely the kind of guy he is: well-read, and peeved. These two qualities have long been a source of inspiration for Allen, whose prankish sense of humor is front and center more than usual in his latest work for the Neo-Futurists.
A cunning exercise in restoration, the play (directed by Allen as well) is stacked tight with profanity, and a knowing sensibility in its quest to reinstate the dastardly doings depicted in the famous 1883 Italian children's novel. And who better to understand the puppet's identity (and daddy) issues than Frankenstein's creature?
Something new is revealed, I think, when characters from disparate works of literature invade one another's realities, and our ungainly narrator (a riveting Guy Massey, looking gnarly as hell) is a master storyteller in the guise of a disgusting crank. It is time to embrace the dark side, he intones: "This is a tale of woe. A tale of murder, of misery, of fatherlessness. I love it! I hate it!" There is madness to come. Hysterical, cartoonish, middle-finger-extended madness that is as playful as it is warped.
Pinocchio, as rendered here by Robert Fenton, is a jackanapes with puppy-dog eyes. Fenton's physical resemblance to Prince Harry is surely coincidental, but it is a potent subtext all the same — a spoiled, ginger-haired boy on a surreal bender.
It's a terrific, indefatigable performance (bolstered by the ensemble), although the production has a few drawbacks, particularly when the script hits the same beats, again and again. Too many of Pinocchio's misadventures feel like narrative procrastination, and after nearly 21/2 hours, the inevitable resolution arrives: Pinocchio becomes a real boy, much to themonster'srage. But the story doesn't build to this climax so much as simply arrive at it.
And yet there is an anarchic spirit underlying this production that is so strong and absorbing — so entertaining — that it is impossible not to be swept up in its embrace.
Through April 14 at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave. Tickets are $20 at 773-275-5255 or neofuturists.org
A somewhat milder take on young adult science fiction than "The Hunger Games" — and preceding it by more than a decade — Lois Lowry's "The Giver" reads as though it is aimed at a slightly younger audience than "Hunger." Nonetheless, it exerts a certain discomfiting power in its depiction of a false utopia. It is a numb, homogenized existence. Strict rules about thought and behavior are enforced. Doublespeak is the lingua franca. Extreme emotions are taboo. Sexual urges are repressed with pills. And in return (somehow), the people of this society experience no physical or emotional pain.
Is the trade-off worth it? That's a potent question for YA sci-fi readers to ponder, but something about this stage adaptation from Eric Coble flattens out what is a slight book to begin with. Once you give a story like this physical dimensions, it becomes clear just how limited and underdeveloped Lowry's story actually is. It's always tricky when adult actors play children, straddling that line between youthful verisimilitude and exaggerated pandering, and too often Brian Bell's production for Adventure Stage Chicago falls into the latter category. More troublingly, the play chickens out just when the narrative stakes need to become disturbing. What's the point of staging this kind of story, if you're not willing to deeply engage with its darker implications?
Through April 21 at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St. Tickets are $12-$20 at 773-342-4141 or adventurestage.org
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