IN PURPLE mask and orange high-tops, Aaron Fields must be the snazziest villain in town. But it's his bad-guy snicker that transforms the kindly 16-year-old into the evil master puppeteer in "Pinocchio Commedia," a children's play opening Saturday at BAPA's Imagination Stage at White Flint Mall in Bethesda.

For three weekends, kids 5 and up can catch this innovative production, which uses music, dance, sign language and the spoken word to portray the adventures of a wooden puppet. Aaron and 10 other local deaf and hearing teenagers, all members of the nationally acclaimed Deaf Access Company, bring fresh life to Johnny Simons's adaptation of Carlo Collodi's 19th-century Italian classic. The youthful cast also ups the acting ante by using a play-within-a-play structure as a troupe of traveling players re-creating the well-known tale. And in keeping with commedia's traveling tradition, the actors journey to Germantown to perform on Sunday and Feb. 2.

"The commedia dell'arte form -- with its mime, masks, acrobatics and dance -- seemed especially well suited to Deaf Access," director Lisa Agogliati says, "since it emphasizes body language in telling a story, which is also important in sign language."

In a phone interview, Agogliati is quick to thank mime David Yeakle, the guest artist responsible for training the cast in commedia technique.

Since 1990, the Deaf Access Company has thrilled young audiences here and across the country with its special style of theater. Each year when a new play is chosen, teenagers must audition in September and make a nine-month commitment to researching, rehearsing and performing in Bethesda during the winter and at other venues in the spring. Half the performers are deaf or hard of hearing and the others are hearing teens, often children of deaf parents.

The company, a program of BAPA's Imagination Stage, is run jointly by founder Agogliati, a hearing theater professional, and Donna Salamoff, a deaf visual dramaturge and sign master who teaches the young people how to blend sign, mime, facial expression and gesture in creating a theatrical sign language.

In 2002, this exciting fusion of the two worlds received a three-year Department of Education grant to develop an instructional manual and video (just completed) for organizations interested in starting similar programs.

Of course, a manual can never capture the creative energy of a rehearsal, especially that first dress rehearsal when everyone gets to show off a bit. On the evening I visited, there was much adjusting and admiring as the cast donned the bright blouses, wild tights and decorated sneakers designed by Kathleen Farasy. When Pinocchio (played by Alexis Beveridge) tried out the lie-induced elongated nose, the twiggy extension snapped -- but was soon repaired by Salamoff.

Up came the music, and with a swirl of his cape the evil puppeteer and his cohorts (Sal Lincoln and Annie Dillon) began manipulating their life-size marionettes (Julie Miller, Daniel Strauss and Anna Bitencourt). With wide eyes, fixed expressions and jerky movements, the three looked just like dancing puppets.

A NEW STAGE In the months following "Pinocchio Commedia," audiences can enjoy "Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans: A Salsa Fairytale" and "Rapunzel" (both traditional plays with adult actors) at the White Flint location. July will bring the world premiere of "Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business" at the new Imagination Stage in downtown Bethesda. The Auburn Avenue site boasts a 450-seat professional theater, a 200-seat theater for student productions, a gift shop, a cafe, a workshop and rehearsal rooms and even a digital media studio, all designed by the Boston-based architectural firm Wood & Zapata.

"[This arts center] will have a national presence. There's nothing quite like it in children's theater in this country," said Executive Director Bonnie Fogel, who founded the Bethesda Academy of the Performing Arts (BAPA) 24 years ago. (In relocating to the new two-level, 40,000-square-foot building, the program sheds the BAPA part of its name but retains Imagination Stage.)

"I love the play on words," said Communications Director Laurie Levy-Page, who, with Fogel, toured the site earlier this month. "Imagination Stage, of course, refers to the theater. But it's also a 'stage' of development, childhood being a time of imagination."

Even strolling hard-hatted among ladders, wires and exposed concrete walls, I could picture the warm colors, intriguing floor designs and opaque glass exterior described by Fogel. "We want to be as welcoming as a village square," she explained. "People can come to the cafe, hang out, plug in their laptop computers. They don't have to be attending a performance to enjoy the space," which will be open daily to the public from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fogel also hopes to re-create the intimacy of the White Flint theater by allowing little ones to sit on the floor close to the new larger stage.

Levy-Page mentioned the staff's excitement as the late-March moving date approaches. The $13 million center brings under one roof the administrative offices, performing arts workshops and stage that have been in separate spaces for years. Fogel plans both to expand workshop and summer camp offerings for school-age youngsters and add a "creative play" series for babies, toddlers and preschoolers accompanied by adults.

Was all this a long-term vision? Fogel laughed at the question. "Everything started with my own two kids [now grown] and the neighborhood children," she replied. "In school they weren't being exposed to the arts as I had been, growing up in England where the arts were an important part of the school day." From this modest beginning, BAPA grew rapidly, explained Fogel, because "there was clearly an interest, especially in programs like Deaf Access and workshops for youngsters with developmental and cognitive differences."

She summed up the program's wide appeal: "Children need the arts in their lives."

And thanks to Imagination Stage, kids' imaginative stage might continue to develop over a lifetime.

PINOCCHIO COMMEDIA -- Through Feb. 9 at BAPA's Imagination Stage, White Flint Mall, second level next to Bloomingdale's, 11301 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. 301-881-5106 (Metro: White Flint). Performances are Saturday, Feb. 1, 8 and 9 at 12:30 and 3. Tickets are $7.50 general admission, $6.50 for groups of 10 or more. Advance purchase recommended. Also at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Dr., Germantown, Sunday and Feb. 2 at 3. Tickets are $8; call 301-528-2260. Suggested age of audience is 5 to 12.

Coming up: "Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans" (Feb. 15 to March 23, White Flint); "Rapunzel" (March 29 to June 15, White Flint); "Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business" (July 9 to Aug. 10, 4908 Auburn Ave. in Bethesda). Call or check Web site for show times. For birthday parties, call 301-881-5106. For information on performing arts classes, workshops and summer camps, call 301-320-2550.

Clockwise from top left, Aaron Fields, Annie Dillon, Anna Bitencourt and Daniel Strauss in "Pinocchio Commedia."