For nearly 40 years, Hip Pocket Theatre has modeled itself on a commedia dell’arte troupe, a ragtag bunch of performance-lovers making bawdy, irreverent (and sometimes serious) theater in the woods of far-west Fort Worth.
It’s always fun when the Hipsters address this influence head-on, with no better example than Johnny Simons’ Pinocchio Commedia.
Adapted from Italian writer Carlo Collodi’s famous 19th-century work The Adventures of Pinocchio, this was the first play Simons wrote, before HPT was founded, when he and his wife, Diane, ran the children’s playhouse at Casa Mañana. It debuted at Hip Pocket 1981, and has been revived in 1991, 2000 and now 2014.
It’s also one of Simons’ works that has been published and is occasionally performed by international companies. He directs this revival.
The set-up is that a commedia troupe, with all its stock characters, introduces and then performs the story for the audience, making the occasional aside — such as when the name is pronounced in the Italian, “pee-no-CHEE-oh.”
Arlecchino, who will play the Cricket (Sara Blair), sets up the story and introduces the actors and their characters: Pantalone/Gepetto (Michael Joe Goggans), Razullo/Fox (James Warila), Beltramo/Cat (Jozy Camp), Pulchinella/Wicked Puppet Master (Rupert Crabb), Pedrolina/Donkey/Fool (Jeff Stanfield), and Columbina/Spirit (Katie Keller).
Pinocchio is his own commedia character, of sorts, and becomes the “Wooden-Head” boy (played by Christina Cranshaw). Eight actors play the zanni, or ensemble of clowns and fools.
Considering that the original cautionary tale is about an object that becomes human — and therefore learns life lessons the hard way — masks (designed by Lake Simons) add to the veering away from humanism; commedia is an apt fit for this story.
Exaggerated laughter, broad physical comedy and the literal use of verbs that describe any given character’s actions (the puppet maker goes “carve, carve, carve”; the cricket goes “chirp, chirp, chirp”; etc.) contribute to the communal, improvisational “let’s put on a show” aesthetic.
Cast members, many of them college students, run with it. Columbina gets the most poetic language (only early on, though), and Keller speaks it beautifully. Blair is commanding as the ringleader, and as was originally written, the Cricket is as mischievous as it is sense-making for the Wooden-Head.
Not all the adventures in Collodi’s story are here, but the major plot points are.
Memorable scenes include Pinocchio’s visit to the marionette theater (the ensemble moves in unison to stand in for those puppets); the dogfish and slow-motion underwater scenes (kudos to Nikki DeShea Smith for her lighting there), with the large fish manned by five performers.
As Gepetto, Goggans, with his skewer-thin legs, in a pair of red long johns, is an expert at exuding comedy with gruff characters.
Pulchinella warns that the theater is an unfit place for a boy (even a wooden one) to hang out. But there’s no way kids of any age would not have a ball at Pinocchio Commedia.