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THE BART SIMPSON OF FAIRY TALES : Bratty 'Pinocchio' Takes a Musical Turn at SCR

December 12, 1991|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

Long before "time-outs" and other mainstays of modern parenting, Carlo Collodi proposed this deterrent to children's fibbing: You tell a lie, your nose grows. You tell too many, you turn into a donkey, get sucked up by a whale and die. A little extreme, maybe, but it got the point across.

"Pinocchio," Collodi's classic tale of the puppet-boy who earns his humanity the hard way, takes a musical turn this weekend with a production by South Coast Repertory's Young Conservatory Players. Adapted and directed by Diane Doyle, with original music and lyrics by Diane King, the YCP season-opener begins Saturday and continues through Dec. 22 on SCR's Second Stage.

This "Pinocchio," first performed during YCP's 1984-85 season, incorporates elements of the 19th-Century Italian theatrical style, commedia dell'arte, in which traveling actors used masks and sweeping gestures instead of facial expressions and costumes to enliven their tales. It's a style that lends itself well to the larger-than-life characters in "Pinocchio," said Doyle.

"The Blue Fairy, Pinocchio, the fox . . . all these characters are real cut and dried (with) no gray areas," Doyle noted in a recent phone interview. "And there's no gray in commedia either."

In terms of authenticity, this "Pinocchio" seems to fall somewhere between the frothier, well-known Disney film and Collodi's original story. The result is a show that Doyle says will appeal to children as young as 6, especially boys. "Pinocchio is a real brat; he's the Bart Simpson of fairy tales," she said with a laugh. "And besides, what kid doesn't lie?"

To further appeal to young audiences, Doyle has deleted some of the grittier scenes in Collodi's tale. "They didn't have the visuals (of film or modern theater), so to get the point across they were very graphic with their descriptions," she explained. "For example, in the original, when Pinocchio comes home cold and tired after running away, he warms his feet by the fire and burns them up. Obviously, we won't be doing that."

But though the mood is brighter, Doyle has tried to stay true to Collodi's characters. The cricket that dogs Pinocchio during his adventures, for example, is far removed from Disney's natty bug.

"Collodi's cricket had nothing to do with Jiminy," declared Doyle. "This one is 100 years old. He's his conscience. He's constantly saying, 'Don't' do it; you're going to be in trouble.' "

The "Pinocchio" cast is made up of second-year students in SCR's Young Conservatory, a theater training program for youths 7 to 17, and a trio of adult actors drawn from the resident theater's Adult Conservatory. As a troupe of traveling commedia artists, the cast will present the story in and around a colorful pageant or Gypsy wagon designed by Dwight Richard Odle, a longtime member of the SCR company. The wagon side will drop down to form a miniature stage--complete with a changing array of painted backdrops and scaled-down set pieces--through which the actors make their entrances.

Most of the cast will perform as an ensemble, alternating as central characters and chorus members. Instead of using technical wizardry, the chorus will create its own special effects: a sweep of members' capes makes the wings of a pigeon that carries Pinocchio on his search for Gepetto; another forms the belly of the whale in which Gepetto is found.

Although music did not play a big part in the original commedia performances, it is a subtle but significant component of this show, said Doyle, who considers the YCP version "almost an operetta." King, who is of Italian heritage, has written lyrics in both Italian and English. (The dialogue is also sprinkled with the occasional ciao and arrevaderci.) King's recorded score is rounded out with live performances on guitar, flute and other instruments to make scene transitions.

"Pinocchio" is the first of three Young Conservatory Players shows to be staged this season. The subscription series continues in March with performances of "The Windigo" by David Foon, an original story about an Ojibway Indian and his struggle with the Windigo, or spirit of hunger. The show will be presented in the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founders Hall. Delia Ephron's comic "How to Eat Like a Child," also a part of the 1984-85 season, completes the series in June with performances on the Second Stage.

While Doyle has no qualms about recycling shows from past seasons (nor, apparently, do YCP subscribers--the company has had an increasingly strong following since it began in 1979, and nearly 700 have subscribed to the 1991-92 series), she says it is indicative of the dearth of quality scripts for children.

"It's a vast wasteland out there," she said bluntly. "There's really no money to be made by the children's playwright, so it's hard to find material that suits everybody's needs. Some people want to do 'Muppets on Ice,' some want to do 'The Diary of Anne Frank.' I'm somewhere in the middle." Doyle says she tries to balance her seasons with a contemporary, an ethnic and a fairy-tale-based play each year.

What: SCR's Young Conservatory Players present "Pinocchio."

When: Saturday, Dec. 14, at 2, 4 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 15 and 22, at 2 and 4 p.m.; Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 21 at 4 and 7:30 p.m.

Where: SCR Second Stage, 695 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Bristol Street and drive north. Turn right on Town Center Drive.

Wherewithal: $8 to $10.

Where to call: (714) 957-4033.

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