The Adventures of Pinocchio/The Illusion | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Adventures of Pinocchio/The Illusion




Lifeline Theatre


Chapel Perilous Theatre Ensemble

at the Garage

The story of Pinocchio can be seen as an allegory of human growth, from the amoral egocentricity of infancy to the empathy and altruism of adulthood. It could also be a parable of the soul's finding salvation through sacrifice--a sort of Pilgrim's Progress for young readers. Neither of these interpretations was emphasized in the 1940 Disney animated film, which continues to be the definitive version of the tale. But Lifeline Theatre's adaptation by Steve Totland, with music by Michael Vitali and lyrics by both, returns to Carlo Collodi's original story for its inspiration.

Pinocchio's first independent action is to run amok through the village, upsetting vendors' carts, mocking distressed ladies, and generally causing pandemonium (a stage parents call "the terrible twos"). He proceeds to lie, bully, throw tantrums, and discard without hesitation the gifts given him by his poor but selfless father, Geppetto--who, to be sure, had originally thought to put his offspring to work, a sinister motive both Collodi and Vitali abandon almost immediately. Pinocchio strays from his duties at first sight of pretty slave-puppets or smooth-tallking shysters promising easy money. Later he undergoes bizarre bodily changes like those signaling puberty. But with the death of one parent figure--the everforgiving Blue Fairy, a thinly disguised version of the Virgin Mary--Pinocchio comes to realize his own limits and mortality and vows to rescue his father from an untimely fate.

Collodi wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio in 1881 for newspaper serialization--a fact that proves to be a problem for Totland's adaptation. Each chapter is a complete story in itself, so that the protagonist repeatedly progresses through temptation, surrender, regret, and resolution. When these are strung together into a single narrative in which the repentant sinner continually goes right back out to sin some more, he appears repellently inconstant and his alleged reformation seems just another self-serving prevarication.

It doesn't help that, as conceived by Totland, puppeteer Brad Farwell, and director Steve Scott, Pinocchio is a singularly uncharismatic hero. With his unpainted and thus expressionless face, feet that dangle out of control, and propensity for making quasi-flatulent noises (these last a specialty of Farwell's, as those will attest who recall his Richard III for Renegade Theatre), this leading man is no match for the vivid, energetic, and far more attractive human actors--most notably Tom Daugherty and Jamie Pachino as the double-dealing Fox and Cat and Pachino as the scholarly fish Theodore. Pinocchio isn't even a match for the other puppets, who at least have painted-on features. In fact some of the animal puppets--in particular a falcon who wings his way across the stage with breathtaking grace--steal the show. On the other hand, Disney's charming cricket is here a pompous Polonius-like windbag, returning even from the dead with another dry moral lesson.

Vitali's synthesizer-based music tends more toward extended recitative than traditionally structured song--an exception is the Fox and Cat's delightfully oily "Favor for a Friend" duet. And the lyrics are occasionally as wooden as the play's hero ("While you were gone / So much went on"). With all its flaws, however, Lifeline's production is still a welcome resurrection of a fable left too long in storage (even the Disney version looks rather quaint in 1994). It needs only a bit of refocusing to make it all that its authors intended.

According to director Elizabeth Gilliland's note in the program for Chapel Perilous Theatre Ensemble's production of The Illusion, Tony Kushner (yes, that Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America) was commissioned circa 1990 to translate and adapt Pierre Corneille's L'illusion comique, written circa 1630. Since Corneille himself (again, according to the program note) declared the play to be "an extravagant trifle . . . not worth the pain to consider," one wonders by whom, and why, Kushner was so commissioned--and especially considering the air of boredom and condescension that permeates his treatment of this neoclassical comedy.

The Illusion begins with a middleaged lawyer's visit to Alcandre the magician to learn some news of his estranged son. With the assistance of an enigmatic "amanuensis" (a character Kushner added), the sorceress shows the father a series of scenes ostensibly depicting his son's progress--a picaresque saga in which the callow youth loves, kills, and suffers amid a variety of stock commedia dell'arte characters, never retaining a bit of wisdom that might prevent his charging headlong into another scrape. Eventually all these mysteries are given a ludicrously facile explanation, and there's an equally facile pseudomystical denouement (Kushner's, not Corneille's, if the program note is correct).

The greater mystery, however, is what Gilliland and the Chapel Perilous troupe had in mind in choosing this flimsy exercise. Their treatment is too exaggerated for a museum piece, too restrained to be a send-up (a la Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre), and too patronizing to be a true parody. The action proceeds at a stultifyingly slow pace, which the frequent Mel Brooks-style gags do nothing to alleviate (the self-destructing bodice that threatened to add nudity to the show's embellishments was probably an accident, however). And Gilliland engages in the sort of affectation that requires the actor playing Alcandre's customer to remain onstage, still in character, during intermission while the audience members mill about not two feet away and a stage manager stalks through the set to ignite a kerosene furnace. Though the cast members are obviously possessed of substantial talent (and plenty of friends, who chortled away at their sallies on opening night), it is equally obvious from their self-consciously cute performances that they are unwilling to share the fun they're having among themselves with an audience of intrusive strangers.

Midway through the play Alcandre declared, "I gave up hoping for coherence long ago." By then, so had I.

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