THEATER | Jon Ferguson’s “Pinocchio” at the Jon Hassler Theater: Plainview gets its wish—and ours, too

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Is there something in the water down in Plainview? Seemingly against all odds, the farm town two hours southeast of the Twin Cities has hosted some of the area’s very best original theater productions over the past two years. Jon Ferguson’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of my favorite plays of 2010, and though I unfortunately missed Four Humors’ The Happy Cafe, my friend Rebekah Rentzel—whose opinion I trust—positively gushes with enthusiasm about it.

And now here we have another Ferguson show, a new adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. It’s more shambling and eclectic than Sleepy Hollow, not the triumph of tone that show was, but this Pinocchio does so many things so well that you walk out with a warm glow at what’s possible onstage with a few props and a lot of imagination.

The first good decision, one that makes so much sense you wonder why most stage adaptations of this material don’t make it, is to present the title character as an actual marionette. The puppet, a commissioned creation by local artisan Chris Luter-Gardella, is manipulated and voiced by Braxton Baker—a fact you tend to forget because after a few minutes, you’re just watching the marionette. In typical Ferguson style, the character makes his journey with minimal props: think of the most efficient way to represent, say, a talking snail, and that’s what you get. The transparency of the illusion becomes part of the fun, and fun is in no short supply here. When a humorous show for kids is working, a bonus for adult audience members is watching the kids in attendance crack up; the little kids in the front row last Thursday night were almost losing their breath with laughter.

Like Sleepy Hollow, Pinocchio is episodic. In both shows, essentially the same story is told again and again, in slightly different iterations. In Sleepy Hollow, it was the ambiguously tall tale of the Headless Horseman; in Pinocchio, it’s a morality tale in which Pinocchio repeatedly gets his comeuppance for pleasing his base instincts instead of his higher ideals.

Having owned a copy of Collodi’s 1883 story as a child, I wasn’t surprised at how dark things were—the talking cricket, for example, gets killed with a hammer—nor how meandering and outright random the plot developments are. (If you asked master plotter John Irving to adapt this story, he’d fire a shotgun at the book before he made it 30 pages in.) Ferguson’s loose approach finesses this limitation—as well as keeps things reasonably light—by emphasizing a sense of play and discovery. The Blue Fairy’s dead? Aw, heck. She’s alive again? Cool! She’s dead again? Dang it!

With the help of what I understand is very fair compensation by the Jon Hassler Theater (those outstaters make some smart charitable contributions), Ferguson has attracted some of the Twin Cities’ best physical performers: in addition to Baker, the cast includes Live Action Set’s Noah Bremer, In the Heart of the Beast company alumnus Masanari Kawahara, the delightfully deadpan Breana Jarvis, Ballad of the Pale Fisherman star Diogo Lopes, and longtime Ferguson collaborator Allison Witham. As is typical for a Ferguson show, their chemistry and excitement is infectious.

This month has seen a whirlwind of plays opening across the Twin Cities, as the prodigious local theater scene spins into its prime season. I’d strongly advise that you take a day and enjoy a road trip to Plainview, where you can relax and enjoy a cozy fire, cup of coffee, a cupcake, a good used book (the theater doubles as a bookshop and triples as an art gallery), and some fresh, inventive new theater.