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by Jonathon Abarbanel

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Playwrights: Joseph Steakley and Ben Loppries

At: House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets: 773-769-3832;; $30-$50. Runs through: May 19

This new Pinocchio definitely isn't Walt Disney's version, nor is it particularly faithful to Carlo Collodi's 1883 Italian original. The Cat and Fox baddies are gone along with the traveling puppet show, Pinocchio's turning into a donkey and—above all—his human transformation after learning kindness and generosity. Instead, this adaptation selectively uses original elements to frame themes of otherness and being different, whether that means being gay, an immigrant, physically different, or out-of-step socially or politically.

In this version, Geppetto (Molly Brennan) carves Pinocchio from wood salvaged from the Enchanted Forest, after it's burned down by a government that fears nature and declares the forest evil. Pinocchio suffers bullying and physical abuse because he's obviously so different from human children. He's a Brainiac, too, which doesn't endear him to others. His only human friend, Romeo (Brandon Rivera), has an apparent same-sex crush on Pinocchio. Puppy love or puppet love? Townsfolk even hint that Geppetto is a pedophile because he's never-married, middle-aged and makes children's toys.

The regime enforces conformity. Phrases such as "Sometimes it's easier to do what everyone else is doing" or "Sometimes lying is the right thing to do" (to get along) are frequent. It's explained that humans fear people/things they do not understand, but often willfully remain ignorant. The troglodyte attitude about ecology, and making differentness a political wedge issue, are treated comically but are intended to call up real-world willful Presidential ignorance.

The production boasts The House Theatre of Chicago's customary skill, creativity and panache. Pinocchio—a large Marionette without strings operated as a Bunraku doll puppet—is quite wonderful, his head partly a living tree trunk, designed by Chicago Puppet Studio and voiced/operated by the emotive Sean Garratt. The costumes by Anna Wooden offer subtle touches and tongue-in-cheek flourishes (such as leaves/flowers embroidered on Garratt's outfit). Alexander Ridgers's lighting is moody, effective and colorful without ever being garish. Joe Schermoly's massive scenic design suggests a modern coliseum as if we all were watching life-and-death games (abstractly, we are). There's tuneful, emotional music, too, by Matthew Muniz, utilizing recorded strings and piano and live mandolin, cello and accordion.

Seven years ago, the Neo-Futurists presented an elaborate, much more faithful adaptation of Pinocchio, which impressed me with the gruesome and violent nature of Collodi's original tale. Think the real Brothers Grimm and other cautionary fairytales. The House version is milk-and-cookies in comparison. It's enjoyable, imaginative and suitable for children perhaps as young as eight or nine, but it's not a definitive telling (which appears not to have been a goal). However, by making it a platform for issues we recognize as current, the adapters may have limited its staying power. Only time and revivals will tell.

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