“wood boy”: puppets shine in dark extravaganza

We all know the story — or think we do.

Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a real boy. Geppeto the carver, Jiminy Cricket, Monstro the Whale … oops. That’s the 1940 Disney animated film, which took a dark , convoluted Italian children’s book and turned it into a sweet, simple fairy tale.

Chelsea Sutton, a playwright with a taste for the macabre (Kaidan Project, The Dead Woman), went back to the source. In Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, she found the darkness Disney tried to brightwash.
She also added some filthier shadows we’ve since cast across the world, our  Puritan-capitalist colonizing culture being even more repressed — and monster-filled — than Collodi’s.

Fire Eater (Keiana Richard), Wood Boy (Rudy Martinez, with Mark Royston and Sarah Kay Peters).Photo: Chelsea Sutton. 

From this morass arises Shoreside, a failed city built around the lair of the malevolent Dogfish (not placid Monstro, but a fierce giant, as in the original). It periodically ravages the city, seeking to eat the inhabitants’ fear; they struggle to contain it, and make money off its presence by creating festivals and a carnival ride.

This is the world into which Sutton’s “Wood Boy” is born. We enter this world outside the theatre and in the lobby, where the Rogue Artists and the Garry Marshall Theatre have created a museum of Shoreside memorabilia along with live acts — music, magic, and fortune-telling. (And, of course, there’s a bar). Guests are urged to arrive an hour early to take it all in.

In Shoreside, we notice signs and stickers that say “Kill the Cricket!” This is a shock (but faithful to Collodi’s tale, where that’s the first thing Pinocchio does). In the show, we soon share the lethal impulse — this cricket keeps interrupting the action to spout commercials.

Again and again, we meet nasty surprises that were in the story at the start, now embellished by Sutton’s dark imagining. Wood Boy becomes a captive performer at the Fire-Eater’s Theatre (it’s Signor Mangiafuoco in the novel — here, a terrifying full-body puppet). Wood Boy’s feet are burned off (in the novel, through sleepy carelessness — here, as a cruel torture).

Wood Boy Dog Fish sounds grim, but it magically combines its vision with buoyant comedy and colorful spectacle. This is the happy result of a gift neither Collodi nor Disney enjoyed — the Rogue Artists’ mad inventiveness. They fill the space to the back doors and the rafters with characters, music, day-glo colors, balloons, sounds, puppets …
It’s an overwhelming sensory feast, a baroque wedding cake with a dark chocolate center.

This production also benefits from the intimate 130-seat house.
I recently saw a triumphant new musical at the Ahmanson (Soft Power, review below) — but for all the big theatre’s resources, it can’t achieve the immediacy of having tickets and candy land in your lap, or seeing a lynched puppet swing from a noose right above you. The small box also acts as an amplifier, reflecting and re-reflecting sound and light, intensifying the excitement.

Wood Boy Dog Fish is as collaborative as theatre can get. Every group — from the half-dozen puppet designers to the two scene designers, the two costume designers, the three lighting and video designers, the two sound designers (plus composer), two stage managers, half-dozen puppeteers, and the actors — works as a closely sychronized team. And the teams must come together as one. Which is the impressive achievement of director Sean T. Cawelti (who’s also a puppet and mask designer).

A puppeteer trio — Rudy Martinez, Mark Royston, and Sarah Kay Peters — come onstage in black to operate Wood Boy, a most versatile and expressive creation. The show also deploys full-body puppets (Fire Eater and the Terrible Dogfish), stringed marionettes, and hand puppets — and a dizzying variety of masks.

Among the actors, Martinez deserves note for fine voice work while draped in black and helping to operate Wood Boy. Keiana Richard likewise develops a strong character unseen, inside the grinning but unsettling Fire Eater. Paul Turbiak takes turns with Ben Messmer (as Geppetto) operating the Terrible Dogfish puppet; Turbiak stalks with wordless menace, while Messmer/Geppetto wanders with the carver’s sad uncertainty.

Amir Levi (Fox) and Tyler Bremer (Cat) pounce in and out, carrying much of the narrative work in their paws, as well as being sly villains. (It’s a delight that Cat, whose tongue Fire Eater tore out, uses ASL.) Lisa Dring creates an endearing friend for Wood Boy in the lost gamin Wick, and Miles Taber gushes fake glee like a geyser as the alarmingly ebullient MC of Funland.

Messmer, as Geppetto, gives us an inept, depressed, drunken artist who abandons his magical child soon after they connect. But he  has somehow won our empathy, so his failures of judgment and nerve dismay us but do not disconnect us. Finally, as Blue (Collodi’s and Disney’s Blue Fairy, here the ghost of Geppetto’s partner), Tane Kawasaki gives a bravura performance, painting a wide range of emotional colors in words and song, carrying magic for healing and gravity for holding Geppetto and Wood Boy on Earth. (Note: Her costume alone is worth the price of admission; Lori Meeker and Jazz Hager deserve any awards out there.)

Of course, such immersive, high-speed, multisensory storytelling can feel almost chaotic. Add the pervasive darkness of Sutton’s vision, and her lightning-quick puns and allusions, and it can be overwhelming. Unlike Disney’s version, Wood Boy Dog Fish is not aimed at children, though a  very bright (and emotionally resilient) child might relish the ride, even without getting every reference.

For the rest of us, Wood Boy Dog Fish offers a dazzling romp through the dark side of life, a carnival ride of rare energy and brilliance into the byways of our individual and communal souls. The script is a stunning achievement. This production (and edition), the fruit of years of working and reworking, testifies powerfully to what dedicated working at one’s art can accomplish.
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Wood Boy Dog Fish, by Chelsea Sutton, directed by Sean T. Cawelti.
Presented by Rogue Artists Ensemble at the Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank 91505.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00
Sundays at 3:00 and 7:00,
through June 24th.

Tickets: <web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/19/1525147200000>