Chicago Theatre Review
A Story Told Through Sound and Silence
Pinocchio – Chicago Children’s Theatre
Back in 1883, before children’s literature had become popular, Italian writer Carlo Collodi wrote a cautionary story for kids. This was the fashion of that time; books weren’t as much for enjoyment as they were to teach lessons. It was about a little wooden puppet who eventually becomes a real boy. In order to achieve this, the mischievous puppet-without-strings, sculpted by a kind, childless woodcarver named Geppetto, and brought to life by the Fairy with Turquoise Hair, must survive a number of adventures. Along the way Pinocchio learns from his many foolish mistakes and eventually becomes a real little boy.
The story is a children’s classic. The original book has been translated into more than 260 languages, and there have been hundreds of re-imaginings that’ve evolved from this classic tale. Possibly the best known is Walt Disney’s popular animated 1940 version. The cartoon movie softened much of the
darker elements of the puppet’s adventures and made the tale more family-friendly. Indeed, when most people are asked if they know the story of Pinocchio it’s the Disney version they fondly recall.
In Levi Holloway and Katy Boza’s updated adaptation, which they also co-directed, some of the ominous threatening shadows of the original book color the story. This new production, created as a collaboration between Chicago’s Neverbird Project and Chicago Children’s Theatre, doesn’t include all of Collodi’s book. It depicts several stories from the puppet’s adventures, many sensitively dealing with death and abandonment. To make this production even more noteworthy, the play’s been cast and directed with an eye for inclusion. Pinocchio, although still portrayed as a little boy puppet, is played by a young, gifted, hearing-impaired performer named Julissa Contreras. The actress silently signs all of her own dialogue, as do all the other deaf and speaking/hearing actors in the production. The young actress ardently animates her character’s thoughts and words. Contreras plays a newborn, full of wonder and impish delight. Pinocchio’s voice is supplied by the chirpy, very talented actress, Sarah Cartwright, as the talking Cricket, who also serves as the puppet’s conscience. Together they create a dynamic duo. Through their joint communication Collodi’s story is as easy to follow as it is beautifully told, through both sound and silence.
is sensitively portrayed by Chris Chmelik, a talented actor whose work has been enjoyed on such area stages as Chicago Shakespeare and Steep Theatre. Here he provides the paternal voice of reason and the unconditional love that Pinocchio craves. The wonderful supporting cast includes several young performers, all of whom are just as talented and focused as any adult actor. Standouts include Haley Bolithon, as Blu, a fairy-like spirit who, we learn, is the ghost of a dead child. She’s one of many who have become the myriad of stars that shine in the canopy above, always watching over us. Mary Williamson, previously seen at Red Orchid, Steppenwolf and the Goodman, is Redd, the villainous, manipulative puppeteer whose obedient ensemble of marionettes perform nightly at the local theatre. He tries to ensnare Pinocchio, enticing the boy with stardom, as his novelty, a puppet performing without strings.
The sheer beauty of this unique production can’t be conveyed in mere words. It must be seen to be fully appreciated. The story is exciting, unpredictable and filled with all kinds of surprises, even for those already familiar with the story of “Pinocchio.” On one level there’s the spoken word. But there’s also the beautiful singing and graceful movements of the cast, courtesy of Nicole Lambert, and the exceptional background music and sound design by Jeffrey Levin. But then, on another, almost ethereal level, there’s the allure and drama found in American Sign Language, meticulously taught and directed by Matt Andersen. This addition makes every word feel like poetry that magically floats in the air.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 20-May 7 by Chicago Children’s Theatre, in association with Chicago’s Neverbird Project, in their new space, The Station, 100 S. Racine Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 872-222-9555 or by going to
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com