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Chicago by John Olson

The People's Pinocchio
Quest Theatre Ensemble

The People's Pinocchio
Richard Banden
God bless the children, because they make all sorts of things possible in theatre! Since everything in theater is a new experience to them, they can approach each show without the rigid expectations adult audiences may have. They can be generous enough to let pass a less ambitious project like the touring Dr. Dolittle, or open-minded enough to allow the innovation of a Lion King. Quest Theatre's The People's Pinocchio deserves to be compared to the latter. Not in scale, of course. This non-profit company funded entirely by grants and donations presents its shows for free and hardly has the resources of a Disney. But in their visual inventiveness and risk-taking, the creators of this Pinocchio prove the "equal-opportunity" nature of creativity. You don't have to be big or have a lot of money to have great ideas.

Still, ideas frequently need money to become reality. Surely, Quest's grants and donations must have been supplemented by many unpaid hours and the ingenuity to figure out ways to build their visual elements on what was probably a shoestring budget. The production design includes life-size puppets, Commedia dell'Arte style masks, and inventive costumes, scenic design and lighting effects. Jessica Pribble's costumes include such creations as the colorful Mother Spider, with a backside that extends some three or four feet behind actress Leslie Hull and is large enough to engulf the Cricket, as well as a painted leotard to turn Josh Hoover into the wooden Pinocchio. In an especially effective collaboration of costume design and lighting design (by David Tarzon), a snake appears to float across the playing area. Tarzon also creates a magical way for Pinocchio to transform into a real boy, as the boy appears in silhouette to emerge from his wooden shell. The masks by Nick Rupard and Amanda Church, together with life-size puppets by Rupard and Jason Bowen, give the sense that the story of the puppet-boy is being told entirely as a puppet show on a human scale. The action is placed in front of an effectively eerie scenic design by Rupard, Buck Blue, Lee Brasuell and Julie Taylor that recalls the vision of painter Edvard Munch (particularly in a two-piece backdrop portraying the sideshow audience as a collection of ghostly faces).

In returning to the original story by Carlo Collodi, this production, conceived and directed by Andrew Park, is an exploration of the dangers and fears of being human that gets truly scary. Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio's cute little guide in the Disney version, is here just "Cricket" and he's eaten by a giant spider in the first act. The onstage world Park creates is all darkness and shadows and winds that blow through the audience. Whenever Pinocchio descends from the safety of the hooks that hold him by his strings, he encounters danger, be it the murderous forces of nature or the duplicity of men like evil sideshow managers. The story is supplemented by musical numbers taken from a variety of sources, including New Age and folk songs by the likes of Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Peggy Seeger. Though the narrative could be clearer, we understand the themes and emotions.

The People's Pinocchio
Jason Bowen and Company
The cast is quite solid by non-Equity standards. Hoover does a fine job playing Pinocchio mostly through pantomime. He's made of wood, yet spineless and flexible. Vincent Lonergan is an affecting Gepetto and gets a touching solo, "If I Could Start My Life Again," while in the belly of the whale. Jason Bowen, in a smaller part, sells the show's only show-tune style number, "Move Away and Shine," with a solid voice, confidence and style.

The People's Pinocchio is another example of the Chicago theater community's ability to surprise. There's never any telling where the best work will surface. In this case, some of the most inventive work that can found in the city, particularly in terms of its visual stagecraft, is on display for free in a school gymnasium.

The People's Pinocchio will be performed Fridays and Saturdays through August 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at Klasen Hall, 1609 W. Gregory, Chicago. Tickets are free, but donations are greatly appreciated. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 312-458-0895. For more information, visit www.questensemble.org.


Photos: Jeremy Lawson

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-- John Olson



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