Pinocchio's cautionary tale comes alive for adults.

Boy Toy 

Pinocchio's cautionary tale comes alive for adults.

Many Italian movies of the 1950s, such as Federico Fellini's La Strada, would feature picturesque but stuffy villages enlivened by traveling theater troupes. Commedia dell'arte, starting in the sixteenth century, brought merchants and peons alike great stories with unsubtle morals, but the magic of theater was the real draw. Pinocchio Commedia at Theatre for Young America is like live Fellini that hypnotizes children with its story and adults with its artistry.

Written by Johnny Simons and marvelously directed by Chris Clegg, Pinnochio begins with a precurtain show of juggling and fire-eating by Matt Rapport. A harlequin-garbed Arlecchino (Justin Shaw) then points out that the space the audience is sharing with the actors is drab (the set is designed by Valerie Mackey in the yellows and light browns of a crumbling Tuscan town) and corrects the monochromatic mood by rolling into the town square the fantastic theater wagon. It unfolds to reveal purple walls lined with masks and costumes and a checkerboard floor. All that's missing is the smell of cypress trees and pecking of stray chickens.

The rest of the troupe consists of Pantalone (Rapport), who will play Geppetto and the evil Puppet Master; Columbina (Heidi Gutknecht), who is cast as the blue fairy and the manipulative cat; and Pedrolina (Jessica Dressler), who is dressed like the opera clown Pagliacci but is just as comfortable as the sinister fox. Geppetto carves a marionette that he desperately wishes were his son, then goes to sleep (perchance to dream). As if wishing would make it so, the wooden puppet becomes a wooden boy, played with perfect voice and manner by Jake Walker.

When Pinnochio's brisk jaunt to his first day of school is hijacked by the fox and the cat, the tone of the piece turns dark and twisted. The boy-puppet is sold to a mad theater genius who enslaves other puppets like a demonic Svengali. The fool (Dressler) that lives on the fringes of the horrible theater frees him but has also been duped; the promise to take Pinnochio to the "land of happiness," Yeknod Island, is a harsh betrayal -- Yeknod is donkey spelled backward, and it's a ghastly place where boys become animals that hee-haw with embarrassed shame.

As remarkable as the actors are the costumes of Ashlea Christopher and the brilliant masks of William (Matt) Hill. Geppetto's mask, for example, rises a foot above Rapport's head, bearing spectacles and big, sad eyes near its crown. Pinnochio's looks like knotty pine and has the requisite growing nose, and that of the fox has half its face twisted in a smirk. Then there's the dogfish as big as a limousine that swallows Geppetto whole. The false faces leave the actors' chins visible, yet they create indelible characters. Post Script: Bohemians have a new purpose with the creation of the Lyric Opera's social group for youngish (ages 21-40) opera converts, the Bohemians. Formed last fall to seduce the demographic into the Lyric's programming, the group has been attending operas and partying -- a lot.

After Tosca, says Lyric development coordinator Jennifer Kraenzle, 28, a group of about eighty people retreated to John's, the two-level bar and grill at 928 Wyandotte. "And there was the pre-party before Don Pasquale at the Dolphin Gallery," Kraenzle says. The next bash is Friday, May 10, when for $24 interested theatergoers can attend Cold Sassy Tree and then head to a loft in the River Market for "an apres-opera party." (For those who prefer just the party, admission is $5.)

Kraenzle says opera stands out from other performing arts in its appeal to both aging aficionados and up-and-coming neophytes. "Opera has statistically been the one form of live theater that's reported a surge of 18- to 25-year-olds," she says. "Opera's not the traditional fat lady standing still singing anymore. It's become very theatrical, with pyrotechnics and special effects. Plus, the singers are younger and the subtitles projected above or below the stage have helped." She adds that Cold Sassy Tree has an established audience "because many have told us they've read [Olive Ann Burns'] book."

Nikki Browning, also 28, is a chemist and the president of the Bohemians. "My aunt turned me on to opera, but I really got into it about four years ago," she says. "I'm on the Lyric Opera Guild, a group of volunteer supporters, and the youngest on the board by ten years." Asked how the Bohemians go about persuading the skeptical, she says, "That's a hard one. I say, 'Try it once.' Some operas you'll like, and some you won't. But there will always be people like my husband who probably won't go again."

In another gesture to the younger crowd, the Lyric's 2002-03 brochure promotes La Boheme by saying it's the opera that inspired Rent, bringing the two art forms full circle. Kraenzle says, "We're absolutely capitalizing on the popularity of Rent. And Moulin Rouge had elements of La Boheme as well."

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