Fort Worth — Just as the spirit breathed life into the little, wooden marionette called Pinocchio, so too does Johnny Simons into one of the most heavily adapted and co-opted children's stories ever in Pinocchio Commedia, its fourth appearance since its debut at Hip Pocket Theatre in 1981 (Simons wrote the show more than 50 years ago).
The popularity of Carlo Collodi’s original story is vexing. The moral is essentially that kids should always do exactly what their parents tell them and never lie. Why would kids like that? The answer probably has to do with the surreal inventiveness of how Collodi tells the story. Pinocchio is a marionette who later turns into a donkey and ultimately saves his father from the belly of a dogfish, with a host of personified animals along the way playing vital characters.
Staging such an adaptation, therefore, is not easy. How can one capture the magical whimsy of the original story? Well, Johnny Simons figured out a way. By staging the story as a commedia dell’arte scenario, which introduces stock characters and masks, a playful frame is created through which the players may do the tale justice.
Using the commedia characters, for the most part, Simons casts Arlecchino (also known by the more popular name Harlequin) as the Cricket (Sara Blair); Pantalone as Gepetto (Michael Joe Goggans); and Columbina as the Spirit (Katie Keller). Given that the character of Pinocchio didn’t exist until well after the 16th century heyday of commedia, he exists as a singular character, played by Christina Cranshaw.
Other stock commedia characters making appearances include Razullo (James Warila) and Beltramo (Jozy Camp) as the Fox and Cat—characters from the book, but Zanni in this version—respectively. The evil Pulcinella (Rupert Crabb) plays the Wicked Puppet Master, and Pedrolina (Jeff Stanfield) plays a Donkey and a Fool. The rest of the cast are Zanni, typically common folk and bit players in commedia. Technically, Arlecchino, Pedrolina, Razullo, and Beltramo are all Zanni, as well.
The plot hues close to Collodi’s original, though still lines up closely with the Disney version many people are likely to know. Pinocchio, after being given the breath of life from a spirit, is stopped on his way to school one day by a couple of ne’er-do-wells, who quickly sell him to the evil Puppet Master. From there he escapes. But, instead of going home, he goes to a place called Toyland in the book, though Simons gave it a different name. There, because he is misbehaving, Pinocchio turns into a donkey. Meanwhile, Gepetto goes looking for him and is swallowed by a dogfish. Pinocchio saves him and they live happily ever after. Obviously, a well-known story.
By setting the piece up as a commedia performance creates a play-within-a-play context that adds a sense of fun and play that really make the words come to life. The audience is transported to that childlike state of watching a ragtag bunch of players use ingenuity and creativity to instill in them a mystical sense of wonder.
This show is just so much fun. The performances are delightfully over-the-top and plead to the audience for response and engagement. Simons knows his commedia and uses it to the play’s advantage. It might be fun to play a bit with the strident moralistic stance of the piece, but Simons clearly instead prefers to focus on the positive; a child’s story staged for children. Yet, in this particular presentation, it’s something to be enjoyed by all. Just watch out for any donkey ears that begin to sprout out of people’s heads.