‘Pinocchio!’ at Industrial Strength Theatre is no wooden production; it’s alive with charm


From left: Toby Mulford, Jack Novak and Hannah Sweet. (Traci J. Brooks Studios)
March 19

For a guy who starts out as a block of wood, Pinocchio certainly gets around. Early in life, this trouble-prone marionette finds himself matching wits with con artists in a lonely forest, escaping a dastardly coachman’s clutches in a mischief-filled metropolis and rescuing his father, Geppetto, from the belly of a giant fish. And that’s not even counting the extra distance covered by the end of his sometimes-lengthening nose.

These and other escapades unfold jauntily in “Pinocchio!,” the children’s show at the Industrial Strength Theatre in Herndon. The first collaboration between Faction of Fools Theatre Company and NextStop Theatre Company, this 50-minute entertainment distills Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century tale and infuses it with the artistry of commedia dell’arte. The stylized physicality, populist ethos and colorful masks of that centuries-old Italian street-theater genre turn out to be well suited to the escapades of Pinocchio, and they give this production a distinctive look and feel, without detracting one whit from its accessibility. (The production is recommended for all ages.)

Written and directed by Paul Reisman (associate artistic director at Faction of Fools, which specializes in commedia dell’arte), “Pinocchio!” unspools in front of a red-and-blue proscenium frame that resembles an oversized puppet theater. Puttering in front of this scenic piece in the show’s early moments is the elderly carpenter Geppetto (Toby Mulford, with a stooped posture and affably wheezy manner). From a wooden block, the old gent fashions Pinocchio (Jack Novak), a gullible scamp whose habit of wandering off and hobnobbing with eccentric villains frequently requires the interventions of the Blue Fairy (Hannah Sweet).

Dressed in a buttercup yellow outfit and mask (Lynly Saunders designed the costumes; Tara Cariaso and Aaron Cromie devised the masks), Novak deploys stiff-limbed movements to emphasize his character’s marionette essence. Other memorable figures who wander into our view include the wisdom-dispensing Cricket (a puppet, voiced by Alani Kravitz) who periodically tries to rein in Pinocchio’s naughtiness and a sly Fox and Cat (Mulford and Sweet in masks, ears, fur-trimmed coats and fingerless gloves) who try to con Pinocchio out of his money.

Reisman’s script includes humor that young children will be likely to enjoy: For instance, early in the show, when Geppetto tries to teach Pinocchio to speak, the marionette repeatedly mixes up the words for “arm” and “leg” and “hello” and “goodbye.” The production’s suspenseful scenes are only gently scary and resolve quickly: When the Fire-Eater (Justin Purvis), an intimidating puppet-theater impresario with a braided beard, threatens to burn Pinocchio for kindling, he soon thinks better of it, won over by Pinocchio’s amiable nature.

The show contains some clever directorial/design touches, such as the sticks actors manipulate to evoke the jaws of the giant fish. (Daniel Mori contributed the prop and puppet design.) At a matinee last weekend, the children in the audience appeared spellbound during this sequence and all the rest of Pinocchio’s adventures, right through to his transformation into a real boy.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Pinocchio!

Written and directed by Paul Reisman, based on the story by Carlo Collodi. Scenic designer, Daniel Flint; composer and sound designer, Jesse Terrill. 50 minutes. Recommended for all ages. $10. Through March 30 at the Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. 866-811-4111. www.nextstoptheatre.org.

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