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House Theatre’s ‘Pinocchio’ can’t quite find its story footing

Sean Garratt and the Pinocchio puppet with Molly Brennan as Geppetto in House Theatre's production of "Pinocchio." | Michael Brosilow Photo

Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” goes to some pretty scary places as kids’ movies go. Looking back now at the Pleasure Island sequence, where Pinocchio and Lampwick are transformed into donkeys while Jiminy Cricket watches the Coachman herd terrified donkey-boys into shipping crates, I don’t know how it didn’t give me nightmares.

‘Pinocchio’

★★1⁄2

When: Through May 19

Where: House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

Tickets: $30 – $50

Info: thehousetheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission

But Carlo Collodi’s original novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio” is even darker. A holy terror from the moment Geppetto carves him, Collodi’s Pinocchio is a raging id-monster, aggressive and selfish and misbehaving for the sheer joy of it. His resistance to going to school and to following the advice of parental figures leads to horrifying punishments. It’s not difficult to read Collodi’s work as a morality tale aimed at persuading children of the value of conformity and obeying authority.

The House Theatre of Chicago’s new stage version of “Pinocchio,” a very loose adaptation indeed, inverts many of Collodi’s themes, to mixed effect. Authors Joseph Steakley and Ben Lobpries place their Pinocchio (the charming Sean Garratt, operating a beautifully designed Bunraku-style creation by Chicago Puppet Studio) and Geppetto (played at my performance by understudy David Corlew, filling in for Molly Brennan) in a vaguely fascistic setting.

The play opens with the sound of howling police sirens as the woodcarver sneaks into his own shop with the block of wood he soon chisels into a sentient being. This Pinocchio is a voracious reader and an imaginative learner; he’d love nothing more than to go to school, but Geppetto insists that he stay indoors and away from the windows, lest he be seen by the neighbors.

The puppet plays dead when two of those neighbors visit. Doohickey (Kevin Stangler), a bumbling, malaprop-spouting Keystone Kop who keeps getting promoted in spite of his ineptitude, and Miss Penny (Christine Mayland Perkins), the local schoolmarm who was once friends (or more) with Geppetto, each represent the official positions of the state in their way. And both strongly suggest that Geppetto consider changing his line of business: an unmarried, childless man who loves to make toys for children?

Being perceived as “different” could get a person — or a puppet — in hot water around these parts, it seems. That’s true for Pinocchio and Geppetto as well as the play’s other non-conformists. Romeo (an affecting Brandon Rivera), the one child who shows kindness to Pinocchio when the wooden boy tries to go to school, is taunted by his classmates with homophobic rhetoric (and it’s heavily implied that he has at least a crush on our title character). And the Blue Fairy (Karissa Murrell Myers) is presented here as an embittered cynic — understandably so, since the city dwellers set fire to her enchanted forest and put up a wall to keep its creatures on the other side.

Pinocchio (Sean Garratt, with additional puppeteer Kevin Stangler) runs towards the forest in a scene from the House Theatre production of “Pinocchio.” | Michael Brosilow Photo
Pinocchio (Sean Garratt, with additional puppeteer Kevin Stangler) runs towards the forest in a scene from the House Theatre production of “Pinocchio.” | Michael Brosilow Photo

Steakley and Lobpries clearly want their “Pinocchio” to speak to current political hot topics. But their script is such a departure from Collodi, Disney or any of the many other versions of the puppet’s story we know that they might have been better off penning something altogether new.

Certainly these heady themes went over the heads of the fidgety under-10-year-olds in the audience at the Sunday matinee I attended. As directed by Chris Mathews, the House’s “Pinocchio” can’t reconcile its many competing tones or quite figure out who its desired audience is. Much like the company’s other new work this season, last fall’s underbaked “Borealis,” “Pinocchio” feels like it’s got the beginnings of some good ideas, but wasn’t quite ready for prime time.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.