To celebrate its 20th Anniversary, Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood brings us a most magical production: a new version of The Adventures of Pinocchio written by Lee Hall and based on the 1883 Carlo Collodi novel. As directed by Stephen Rothman, the new play combines farce, slapstick, high-drama, improvisation, puppetry and the artistry of deaf theatre to create a special night that is not only enchanting, but inspiring.
Following the original book, the story is something most of us have heard our whole lives, but mostly due to the Disney film. The tale is simple: a man creates a wooden boy puppet out of magic wood. He names him Pinocchio and the puppet immediately takes off getting into mischief, mostly out of a crippling naivety. Gepetto sets out looking for him as he has grown to love the puppet like a son. Along the way, Pinnochio becomes part of an acting troupe, meets a fairy, dies at the hands of a mean ole’ fox and gets kidnapped by a Ringmaster who turns him into a donkey. We all know that he eventually becomes a real boy, but the fun is in the adventures he has along the way, and the life lessons he learns while having them.
Having never seen a Deaf West production before, I was curious as to how the deaf members of the cast would work into the production. While most of the hearing actors know sign language and perform and say their lines at the same time, Matthew Henerson who played both Geppetto and the Puppetmaster with gruff charm was generally followed by an interpreter (Colin O’Brien-Lux) who played off the action cleverly. For example, if Gepetto was knocking on the door of a “house” and out of view of the audience, Colin would be visible above the doorway, signing what he was saying. The cute part is when Gepetto finally came into the scene with Colin actually on his shoulders. All of this is played with a wink-wink to the audience which was a lot of fun.
As for the main performers, some were deaf and had someone else speak their lines while they acted and signed their roles. Amber Zion took on the title role of Pinocchio giving him a wobbly, earnest and naïve persona that was amusingly voiced by Darrin Revitz. Revitz was dressed in the same outfit as Zion, but sat on a stool at the edge of the stage. While this would seem to prove distracting, it was actually really interesting, unimposing and fun to watch and listen to. (Some of Revitz’ lines were clearly improvised which made the night unpredictable and hilarious.)
Lexi Marman as Cat and Girl (the Blue Fairy) is a deaf actress who also speaks her lines. She was charming in her roles and brought a new element to the night. The enormously handsome James Royce Edwards played a variety of roles that included the Ringmaster, and the voices of Pantaloon and Fox. He is exceptional in his voices and accents, and he has incredibly stage presence. His one minute role as the Rabbit of Death is worth the admission alone.
But it’s not just the cast that is excellent; everything about the production is crafty and exuberant. Director Stephen Rothman keeps the action moving at a breezy pace, executing every imaginative scene change or character’s entrance with an inventiveness rarely seen. The scenic design is gorgeous and inspired using a variety of set pieces, props and actors to create a change of scene or alter the mood of the proceedings. Equally, the lighting by James L. Moody, the costume design by Ann Closs-Farley, and the Hair, Wig & Makeup by Carol F. Doran are flawless and wondrously creative.
There really is no misstep here. The Adventures of Pinocchio is truly a delightful night out at the theatre for young and old alike. It’d definitely not a children’s show, but kids will like it. It’s the adults, however, that will be transported by the magic. Just like the shows we saw as kids when CGI didn’t exist and imagination was key.
Today, magic is so ordinary there isn’t anything kids don’t expect can be seen, at least at the movies. When Star Wars hit the screen there was a collective “wow” from the world with its advances in special effects and detail in the physical building of the ships and sets. Today, everything is created via computer so there is no end to what we can see on screen. While it’s still an inspired craft, there can be something a little cold about it.
With theater, the rushing of getting anything onto stage sometimes does the experience a disservice. (With Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark being the exception as it will probably be 2012 before that thing “officially” opens.) Each new musical seems to have one big set piece. (The falling chandelier! The barricade! The helicopter!) But what about being dazzled throughout an entire show? Sure, it happens. But it’s getting rarer. It’s harder to find the magic of theater which is why seeing Pinnochio truly infected me with the giddiness of its delights. There was magic there and it reminded me that there can be magic all around us. We just need to look beyond our computers to find it.
The Adventures of Pinocchio is playing at the Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood. For tickets contact deafwest.org or (818) 762-2773 (voice) or (866) 954-2986 (video phone). Performances run Feb. 25-March 27.