‘The Commedia Pinocchio’ honors slapstick roots

You’ve likely seen Disney’s “Pinocchio,” but probably not like this. The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte puts a unique spin on an old classic this month at the Wells Fargo Playhouse.

To no surprise, 7-year-old Brent and 9-year-old Samantha listed the “growing nose” as their favorite part of “The Commedia Pinocchio,” production by the Tarradiddle Players. It’s currently running at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.  But when 6-year-old Colin said the curtain call was a side-splitter, you know the performance had to be good.

Penned by Texas-based playwright Lane Riosley, “The Commedia Pinocchio” (pronounced ko-MADE-ee-ah) is Carlo Collodi’s classic 1883 tale performed in the style of commedia dell’arte: a physical, slapstick brand of “street theater” performed by mimes, acrobats and musicians in 16th and 17th century Italy.

“Classic screwball comedies like ‘I Love Lucy,’ the Marx Brothers’ movies and ‘The Three Stooges’ take their format from the commedia dell’arte style,” explained Steven Ivey, managing director of Tarradiddle Players.

“This version of Pinocchio is a play within a play performed by ‘stock’ characters,” he said.  “You know exactly who they are, and what type of trouble they will get into.”The stock characters featured in “The Commedia Pinocchio” are Columbina (the leader of the troupe), Punchino (the bombastic and proud actor), Arlequino (the mischief-maker), Pantalone (the stingy bookkeeper) and sweet Rosetta.

There are several nods to the Italian heritage of commedia dell’arte like period costumes and exaggerated accents.“From the first minute of the ‘The Commedia Pinocchio,’ we interact with the audience,” said Tarradiddle Player Leslie Giles, who plays Columbina who then plays Pinocchio.  “We never pretend they’re not there.”

Upon introducing themselves to the audience, the troupe launches into the “Big-a Book-a Stories” to tell the tale of Pinocchio, familiar but noticeably different from the 1940 Disney film version. From the moment Maestro Geppeto stops whittling, Pinocchio misbehaves and ignores the warnings of a (non-Jiminy) cricket portrayed in puppet-form.

Pinocchio continually gets into trouble, by tangling with an unscrupulous puppet master and then falling for a prank played by a mischievous fox and cat.

Despite the cricket’s repeated intervention, Pinocchio finds misfortune and lands in jail.  When Pinocchio embellishes the story of his imprisonment, his nose grows with each lie.

The Blue Fairy appears and fixes his elongated snout, freeing him to follow the straight and narrow.  After a detour in Toyland and a donkey curse, Pinocchio searches for Geppeto finding him in the belly of the “Big-a Fish.”

Pinocchio risks everything to save Geppeto, and for his selflessness, the Blue Fairy rewards him with the gift of being a real boy.

Though the plot is involved, the characters many and the action exuberant, “The Commedia Pinocchio” set is minimal by design and necessity.

Historically, commedia artists used relatively little scenery, props or costumes due to the restrictions of touring.  So it is with “The Commedia Pinocchio,” as the Tarradiddle Players have traveled to schools, gymnasiums and libraries all over the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia.

Not counting the three other shows in their repertoire, the company will perform “The Commedia Pinocchio” more than 100 times during the 2012-13 school year.  Highly sought after, the Tarradiddle Players perform for more than 60,000 students annually.

Though the show stays consistent, maintaining the performance in ever-changing venues can be challenging and tiring.  “It’s nice to come home,” Giles said. Watching commedia dell’arte in action gives the audience member new appreciation for the power of the performer.  Since four of the five actors in “The Commedia Pinocchio” portray multiple roles, character changes are made with the quick addition of a hat or prop.

When Pinocchio lies, the illusion of his growing nose is accomplished by a simple stick and a slide whistle.Ivey says commedia dell’arte can tap a young audience’s imagination.

Giles says the appeal lies in the age-old story, both familiar and relatable, since “Pinocchio is a kid, too.”

When asked why she liked last Sunday’s performance of “The Commedia Pinocchio,” 6-year-old Jessica summed it up best. “I don’t know, I just liked it.”

It could have been the “Big-a Fish” but who nose?

“The Commedia Pinocchio” runs weekends through Nov. 18 at the Wells Fargo Playhouse at ImaginOn.  The Nov. 17 afternoon performance will be interpreted for the hearing impaired.  The show is performed in one act, runs approximately 55 minutes and is appropriate for children ages 5 and older.  Tickets are $16 per person.  For more information, visit www.ctcharlotte.org.

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