If you thought the carnival left Arkansas with the conclusion of the Symphony’s final Pops concert last weekend, you’d be wrong. The Arkansas Festival Ballet’s "The Adventures of Pinocchio" presented its own circus atmosphere this weekend with wandering minstrels and prizes in the lobby and marionette dolls played by children on stage at the Arkansas Arts Center’s Children’s Theater.
The marionettes looked so wooden it was genuinely difficult to tell if they were real. They sat about the shop of the carpenter Gepetto (played brilliantly by Edmond Cooper), who consulted with himself about crafting the doll that would become the epitome of the ethically naïve adolescent boy, Pinocchio. Gepetto danced what was likely a pas de deux with the Cricket (Emily Karnes) who attended to the orderings of the shop (and jumped and ambulated and spun about brilliantly as a Cricket might). The story, based on the 1883 children’s novel by Carlo Collodi, begins in Italy, but Pinocchio (the youthful Julia Aronson) makes his way from the ocean deep to the foothills of the Austrian mountains, and meets every kind of creature between. There were memorable moments from the very start, as when Pinocchio leads a mutiny of school children to the town square to see other marionette dolls (in a visually stunning move) hanging and being danced by strings from above. The Sly Fox and Mischievous Cat were quite a pair as well—potentially the funniest vaudeville duo of the ballet—with Meredith Short’s role especially noteworthy due to her beautifully graceful and controlled, if feline, movements.
Pinocchio also encounters a Serpent, Owl and Crow in the forest (called the “Field of Miracles”), where brightly colored fairies show up to save the day with some bees (each entrance of which carried with it naturally reflexive and involuntary ‘ahs’ of delight and wonder, as the fairies really did contort themselves in magical ways). The fairies had some sort of faith in Pinocchio that I almost lost when he plotted, in a scene reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox,’ with two pint-sized weasels to steal and eat a coop of beautiful yellow chickens from a farmer. He was quite a bad boy indeed. What’s more, Pinocchio lies about his bad behavior, which the fairies reasonably felt called for woodpeckers to chisel down his growing nose.
The show went on with forest-dwelling Red Lobsters, Sharks, Lost Children, Venetian Gondoliers, Jazz-age flappers dancing with a Pirate and a waltz in the middle of the ocean (I discovered later that the score was a set of adaptations of the music of Charlie Chaplin). So at some point I just stopped asking questions about the series of events in the absurdist life of a wooden boy, as the depth that usually applies to depictions of children’s tales might have been missing here. That said, the technically brilliant execution of the dancing itself made up for any difficulty in following the story.
What’s important to know is that the sets by Brandon Stalcup and Randie Young were as vibrant with life and color as the real medieval city-centers of Europe I’ve encountered in my own travels. And that, plus the element of fantasy recounted above, made this storybook tale come to life as much as anyone could expect. William M. Strigel