With their adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, Joseph Steakley and Ben Lobpries have fashioned a fable about Trump-era nationalism. It’s not subtle. At one point, a rabidly ignorant crowd condemns the titular wooden boy with percussive cries of “String him up!” His crime? Pinocchio (created by the Chicago Puppet Studio and voiced and manipulated by Sean Garratt) doesn’t come from town, he comes from the forest. And as the tiki-torch-wielding villagers loudly exclaim, nothing good comes from the forest. The Blue Fairy (Karissa Murrell Myers) explains: “They’re human. They’re afraid of anything they don’t understand.” Local twit-brained tyrant Doohickey (Kevin Stangler) harnesses that fear, demanding that the forest be burned down, never mind the impact on the environment.
Despite its heavy-handed moments, director Chris Mathews’s production works as a picaresque adventure and a tale of resistance and survival in times of oppression. Garratt’s Pinocchio is a charmer whose fluid movements and precocious-kid antics make you forget the wooden boy is a puppet. Molly Brennan’s kind but harshly pragmatic Geppetto is also moving as both a fiercely protective parent and an artist whose work is viewed with suspicion by the local powermongers.
The House’s adaptation is loose: There’s no happily- ever-after ending with Pinocchio turning into a “real boy.” Myers’s Blue Fairy doesn’t sparkle—she’s a ragged, haunting specter whose arias fill the air with sorrow (composer Matthew Muñiz’s original music is glorious). It’s a Pinocchio for our time, politicized with a sense of urgency that perhaps Collodi never imagined. v