A lesson against lying

Not just for kids, ‘Pinocchio’ comes to new Jersey City Theater Center

“Pinocchio” is the well-known children’s fable in which a puppet’s nose grows longer whenever he is stressed or tells a lie.
The fable will be performed locally for area residents by Puppetworks, a local theater company that uses marionettes for its performances. This show kicks off the 2015 season for Jersey City Theater Center and is recommended for children 3 or older. It will be performed at 2:30 p.m. each Sunday at Merseles Studios, 339 Newark Ave., through June 28.
“Pinocchio” by Puppetworks is based on Carlo Collodi’s original 1882 “Adventures of a Marionette, Pinocchio,” although this version is an adaptation of a 1938 adaptation by The Mercury Theater, co-founded by Orson Welles.
As the story goes, the Mercury players were performing a human version of “Pinocchio,” and through a WPA program, they revised their script for the Suzari Marionettes, the puppetry theater company that eventually became Puppetworks.
The performances will be presented by puppet master Mike Leach, chief puppeteer and executive director of Puppetworks. A Jersey City native, Leach said he has a fierce dedication to maintaining many of the traditions of the craft.
“ ‘Pinocchio’ is one of our most fun and engaging productions,” said Leach. “ ‘Cinderella’ was a great success at Merseles Studios. Jersey City has great audiences. We are thrilled that Pinocchio is our follow up to a great run of children’s theater.”
In doing fairy tales like “Pinocchio,” the production hews as close to the original story as possible, although some fairy tales (like those of the Grimm Brothers) are too graphic for young audiences and must be modified. The productions done by Puppetworks are based on the Perrault versions, adapted for marionettes by Nicolas Coppola.

“Pinocchio is one of our most fun and engaging productions.” – Mike Leach.
“But this isn’t Disney,” he said. “We are doing theater with real actors. We’re just doing it in one third the scale.”
In the classic tale, Pinocchio is made of wood. His clothes are made of flowered paper, his shoes are made of wood and his hat is made of bread. His character is something of a rascal, and the story is for the most part a lesson against misbehavior. When originally published in 1882, the story was supposed to be a tragedy. Later versions of the tale made him a more sympathetic character, which has inspired a number of later books and movies.

Music and puppetry

The musical score is usually some classical piece. Sometimes, such as with “Hansel and Gretel,” if there is an opera associated with the piece, Leach includes it. “Kids may be watching marionettes, but they’re also hearing an aria,” he said.
The character voices are pre-recorded. This allows the puppet masters to pay close attention to performance, and by using classic marionettes, he and another puppet master can duplicate movement and emotion.
Although each marionette – from the most complicated character to objects like scissors – has a handle attached, puppet masters will do nearly anything with the strings to get the most realistic performance.
Leach said marionettes have a remarkable range of moment that allows the performance to seem very real. But he refuses to hide the strings. He wants the audience to know they’re seeing a show and to somehow suspend belief.
“I want the people in the audience to imagine this together,” he said.
Although this is billed as theater for children, these performances are an education in culture and craft. In the past, puppetry of this kind was a closely-held secret. What went on behind the curtains was hidden from the audience.
“Before the play, I go out with a marionette and I show them how it works,” he said. “I also explain theater etiquette and that they are there to watch, laugh, but not interact.”
Later, after the performance, he comes out again to answer questions.

Theatre is brand-new

The JCTC-KIDS production – in the brand new Merseles Studios Puppet Theater – features hand-carved, wooden marionettes, an original song score, and vivid, colorful scenes ranging from Boobyland and its Donkey Machine to the eerie and glowing Undersea World, complete with whale.
Besides Pinocchio (and yes, the puppet’s nose actually grows on stage) and his creator/father the kindly Gepetto, the performance also includes the full retinue of familiar characters who accompany the puppet-boy on his journey to become a real live boy: the Blue Fairy, Mr. Fox and Mr. Cat, the Ring Master and the Great Stromboli, the ultimate puppet master.
JCTC-KIDS launched last year with the acclaimed production of Cinderella by Puppetworks. “Bringing the classic story of Pinocchio to Merseles Studios continues our commitment to providing quality children’s programming to Jersey City,” said Olga Levina, Artistic Director, Jersey City Theater Center. “The story of Pinocchio teaches children about kindness and friendship and the value of learning. Like Pinocchio, all kids should be encouraged to follow their dreams.”
Audiences attending “Pinocchio” will be the first to experience the JCTC-KIDS Puppet Theater, a newly constructed mini-stage specifically designed for marionette productions. Built into an entire wall of Merseles Studios and having its own lighting and sound system, this state-of-the-art puppetry performance space also replicates the authentic marionette theaters that have been a mainstay of European culture since the middle ages.
In addition to the JCTC-KIDS Puppet Theater, recent upgrades to the art studios and performance space at Merseles Studios include the redesigned, audience-friendly Black Box Theater, new lighting, concessions area and ADA compliant restroom facility.
“We made many improvements at Merseles Studios to enhance the audience experience and our productions and other JCTC programming,” added Levina. “Not only is JCTC-KIDS presenting a new production, but we will be premiering the “new” Merseles Studios.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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