To call Rogue Artists Ensemble’s “Wood Boy Dog Fish” a bold, multimedia extravanganza is entirely appropriate. It is a mélange of disciplines both onstage and off. To tell the story of Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio” in a new, adult oriented way, the production deploys a squadron of actors, artists, designers and technicians to create an unparalleled theatrical experience. Onstage, a splendid ensemble sing, dance and cavort to tell the story of the marionette who comes to life in the darkest of ways. Banish all thoughts of Disney. The cheerful cricket is smashed with a hammer early on, although a player in a cricket costume comes back from time to time to act as a shill selling an array of “Dogfish” products – Dogfish whiskey, Dogfish cigarettes…on and on ad infinitum.
The familiar story line is intact in playwright Chelsea Sutton’s script, but with sinister twists. In a seaside town the main attraction is the Dogfish Ride. The dogfish is a mythical beast that invades bodies and imaginations in invidious ways. Flakes of it can get inside people’s guts, for instance, and cause twisting anxiety. The ride is out of order and closed down and the woman who created it, Blue (Nina Silver), is dead, although she doesn’t realize it. If you are thinking of the Blue Fairy, you are correct. She serves that function. Her partner in the creation of the ride, puppet maker Geppetto (Ben Messmer) is a poor, pining drunk who is under the thumb of the insatiable Fire Eater (Paul Turbiak), who demands three new marionettes for his puppet theatre, dispatching the loathsome Fox (Stephanie O’Neill) and Cat (Willem Long) to physically and brutally harass the craftsman into compliance. Swilling from his bottle, he hastily cobbles together the marionettes.
Exhausted from his labors and not a little drunk, Geppetto is amazed and fearful when his last creation, a wooden boy puppet, begins to move about (played by ninja-clad Rudy Martinez in partnership with Lisa Dring and Mark Royston). He tries and fails to keep the puppet out of the hands of the Fire Eater, who exploits the saucy Puppet. When the Puppet tries to exert some independence, the evil puppet master cruelly abuses him and leaves him strung up on a tree limb to be rescued by Blue.
About in the world, the Puppet has his classic adventures, hooking up with street urchin Wick (Veronica Mannion), who inveigles him to go off to Funland where, under the lecherous watch of the Funland MC (Miles Taber), they overindulge in every pleasure, including a simulated orgy with blow-up dolls, slowly turning into hee-hawing donkeys. Escaping from Funland, the Puppet winds up in the belly of the Dogfish and classically reunites with Geppetto and, with the help of the ghostly Blue, turns into a real boy.
The production is astonishingly ambitious and artfully constructed with Sean T. Cawelti directing a continually moving cast who, save for Mr. Messmer and Ms. Silver, double in the ensemble in a variety of roles. The Dogfish himself is represented as an amusement park ride in excellent projections by video designer Dallas Nichols and videographer Devin Schiro, and onstage and in costume by Jeremy Charles Hohn, who also served on the mask and puppet construction team. The costumes designed by Kerry Hennessy and Lori Meeker are many and extraordinary. My favorite was the trash pile cloak from which Wick suddenly emerges.
Scenic designer François-Pierre Couture swings for the fences with multiple, swiftly moving platforms, curtains and flats that reinforce that dark twisted world of the play. Designer Brandon Baruch doubles down with an expressionistic lighting plot that makes copious use of shadow-projecting backlight that adds much to the chaotic mood of the piece. Original music by Ego Plum and Adrien Prévost serves the vision of the production well with occasional slides into cacophony that amplifies mood.
The climactic scene that takes place in a carnival ride is 3D enhanced creating yet another thrilling dimension to an already extraordinary effort. (ChromaDepth® 3D glasses will be available at each performance for a suggested donation.)
One minor complaint – the occasional, jarring use of profanity in this show stood out and was an unnecessary distraction; doesn’t serve the play.
“Wood Boy Dog Fish” is unlike anything I have ever seen and is unique to the Rogue Artists Ensemble. The Rogues define the combination of multiple artistic disciplines, such as those mentioned above, as Hyper-theater. According to the press release, “they have created nearly twenty original new works under that banner since 2002.” Sign me up for the next one.
“Wood Boy Dog Fish” will continue to thrill audiences through December 12 at Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles.