Who can blame Pinocchio, a wooden marionette with sawdust for brains, for being so easily distracted?
When his new friend Lampwick asks whether he would like to have a week consisting of six Saturdays and one Sunday — with no homework, to boot — Pinocchio answers enthusiastically. Joining Lampwick in a place called Playland, he loves the idea of playing for days on end, even if it thwarts his goal of becoming a boy.
The story of “Pinocchio,” even Disney’s fairy-enhanced version, remains instructive entertainment. It’s a tale that has always had us by the nose (sorry, can’t help it). But director Greg Banks’ version at the Children’s Theatre plumbs some deeper, contemporary themes.
Banks has hearkened back to Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 book for this adaptation, which he first staged at the theater in 2013. He also has brought back Elise Langer, an actor of openness and inviting honesty, for the title role. Her Pinocchio goes through the show as an innocent, who ultimately learns what it means to have tears.
All the action takes place in puppetmaker Geppetto’s workshop, where things are under construction and half-painted. To start the show, paint-splattered actor Dean Holt, lunch pail in hand, ambles in to discover a waiting audience. After some feigned reluctance and loud prodding by egged-on theatergoers, he calls on his co-workers for a bare-bones retelling of the story.
And what an imaginative and engaging telling it is. We get many elements employed in the Disney version, including Pinocchio being snookered by the cat and the fox; his attempt to rescue his father after he has been swallowed by a whale, and his friends being turned into donkeys.
But there’s no fairy in this version. And we also get thematic nods to contemporary concerns such as bullying.
What makes this “Pinocchio” so special is its comic invention. The four-person cast is one to savor, including Joy Dolo as Lampwick and the cat, among others; Reed Sigmund as the sly fox and a puppet, and Holt as basically everything else.
Backed by Victor Zupanc on violin and accordion, the cast is physically engaged and highly entertaining, with spot-on comic timing, especially in executing pratfalls. They take us into realms as disparate as the ocean and the belly of a whale. (The excellent design team includes Rebecca Fuller Jensen on lights, Joseph Stanley for the scenic elements and Mary Anna Culligan for the workmen’s costumes.)
The ensemble’s energetic execution of Banks’ vision is as much about fantastical images as it is about the power of storytelling.
In fact, one of the big takeaways is that the sharing of stories, which we tell one another in answer to the simplest of questions, is what makes us special. It’s a lesson that Pinocchio, striving to be human, vividly learns.