Blank Slate Theatre’s 14th full-length production, a page-to-stage adaptation of Pinocchio, would be artistically challenging even for a professional theater company. The fact that this brilliantly staged and beautifully performed play was put together by grade school and high school students and their twentysomething creative team (playwright, director, and producer) makes it a breathtaking achievement.
Those who have read Carlo Collodi’s 1856 novel, especially those who read it after seeing Disney’s version as children, will know that the Magic Kingdom took considerable license in editing the story which, in its original form, the animators may have considered too dark for a 20th century American audience. But as co-adaptor Hannah Steblay said, following the Saturday matinee on the last day of the show, even the Disney version captured the essential message of the story, a message summed up beautifully in this quote from the show postcard: “A horrifying and delightful journey through carnivals, puppet houses, and the sea leads our hero to the notion that moral choices will give him what he most desires, his humanity.”
It’s a message Tremblay and her co-adaptor, Jordon Johnson, kept front and center with their production, even as it paid homage to the many other versions that came before. Benigni’s film adaptation makes a subtle appearance in some of the scene blocking, and there’s even a wry nod to Disney with the fox and cat’s song and dance number: “We’re Just A Couple of Swells,” a la Judy Garland and Fred Estaire.
Music, along with lighting, are used to creepy effect throughout the production. The peppy introduction of the fox and cat is a perfect counterpoint to the dark scene in the forest, where Pinocchio meets the Blue Fairy for the first time. It’s literally dark-the only lighting is that of tiny flashlights, a strobe light, and the light emanating from the fairy’s house (a dollhouse lit from inside). And an eerie soundtrack trickles in for the duration of the scene—distorted voices, wind chimes, and music by Aphex Twin—before gradually fading into the intermission music, an apropos combination of Tom Waits, Cocorosie, Elliot Goldenthal, Julee Cruise, Louis Armstrong, and more Aphex Twin.
It’s clear enough from the staging alone that the cast and crew were deeply invested in the story and its world, and that this understanding helped them realize a compelling vision. But the acting is what carries the day and makes believable an often challenging narrative style. Audrey Anderson is a winsome Pinocchio—her boundless energy is a driving force in every scene. The wooden boy’s blunders from one mistake to the next, each more troubling than the last, are deeply moving and left me more than once on the verge of tears. Miles Kramer is endearingly stoic as the Talking Cricket—a quality that, in one of the final scenes, displays a maturity beyond his years. Ellen Geis is a radiant Blue Fairy, and Jordon Johnson is an astonishingly talented young actor. Juggling multiple roles, both good and evil (Gepetto, the Fox, and Dogfish), he brings an emotional truth to his performance that is often found wanting in professional productions-something several people noted in a discussion the cast and crew held with the audience after the show was over.
A page-to-stage adaptation is, as I mentioned above, a challenge even for professional companies. When you love a written work and have spent considerable time within the world of the story, you are haunted by visual details that can often be difficult to convey within the physical and temporal constraints of even a big-budget production. In a small black box theater, where you have fewer resources available to you, you must make your staging choices wisely. It can be difficult to know how to tell the story in a way that is meaningful both for those who know it well and for those who’ve never read the book. But the reason this production works on both levels is because most people know the gist of the story of Pinocchio and can follow along fairly easily, even if they don’t know particular details. And for people like me, who love the original novel, it is an aesthetic marvel to see this story come so vividly to life.
Pinocchio has now closed; Blank Slate’s next production is bloodymaryjammyparty, opening on April 8.