Imagine Walt Disney’s Pinocchio had Tim Burton been in creative charge and opted for a live-action 99-seat Los Angeles theater staging rather than an animated film and you’ll have some idea of what to expect in Wood Boy Dog Fish, Rogue Artists Ensemble and Bootleg Theatre’s deliciously dark-and-twisted take on Carlo Collodi’s classic childhood tale.

wood-boy-dog-fish_1 Disney fans will recognize puppet-maker Geppetto (Ben Messmer) and the Blue Fairy (redubbed simply “Blue” and played by Nina Silver here), though as scripted by Chelsea Sutton with Rogue Artists Ensemble** and directed by Sean T. Cawelti, Pinocchio’s Pop has been transformed into a self-pitying lush who alternates between drowning his sorrows over Blue’s death and confectioning marionettes for the puppet theater run by a rapacious Fire Eater (Paul Turbiak).

Fox (Stephanie O’Neill) and Cat (Willem Long) figure here as they did for Disney, though this time round it is not only to lead our hero astray but to serve as Fire Eater’s henchmen.

A cricket, too, makes an appearance before getting smashed to smithereens early on (sorry Jiminy), and a whale (the titular Dog Fish, played by Jeremy Charles Hohn) shows up as well, though unlike that poor bludgeoned cricket, gets to play a more significant—and good deal more menacing—role from the start.

Wood-Boy-Dog-Fish-play1 And yes, the string-free puppet’s wooden nose does grow whenever he tells a lie and yes, he and his bad boy buds do get transformed into donkeys as in the Disney flick.

Still, Wood Boy Dog Fish is hardly your G-rated, family friendly Pinocchio, and not simply because of the f-bombs gratuitously spewed throughout. One violent mishap after another befall our puppet hero, including an Act One finale that has him strung up from the rafters and left for dead, all of which add up to a retitled, re-imagined Pinocchio best seen by teens and older.

Yes, children might ooh and aah at Wood Boy Dog Fish’s many design wonders and special effects, but it’s adults who will truly appreciate the production’s exceptional blend of imagination and ingenuity and creative wonders of a decidedly twisted bent.

Wood-Boy-Dog-Fish_2-1024x731 A team of puppet design whizzes* have come up with one Tim Burton-esque creation after another, most notably the wide-eyed, nails-for-hair Wood Boy, called Puppet here and given endearing voice by Rudy Martinez while being manipulated to believable perfection by a trio of black-clad puppeteers (Lisa Dring, Martinez, and Mark Royston).

wood-boy-dog-fish_4 Scenic designer François-Pierre Couture’s fanciful moving set pieces, Dallas Nichols’ magical projections, Kerry Hennessy and Lori Meeker’s fantastical costumes, Dillon Nelson’s equally offbeat props, Joy Pazos and Erica Romero’s quirky makeup design (merging to perfection with the puppet design team’s masks), and Brandon Baruch’s masterful lighting design all combine to make Wood Boy Dog Fish a visual treat that would do the creator of The Nightmare Before Christmas proud.

wood-boy-dog-fish_9 Adding to the magic are Adrien Prévost and Ego Plum’s appropriately dark, moody, occasionally upbeat music and songs, Stephen Swift’s topnotch sound design, and Nate Hodges’ whimsical choreography, making Wood Boy Dog Fish seem at times almost as much musical as play.

It’s hard to pick and choose among Wood Boy Dog Fish’s many must-see highlights but a couple of the most unforgettable are its underwater ballet, performed by fish-balloon-wielding cast members rolling supine about the floor on torso-length skateboards, and a sequence featuring blowup dolls who morph into piñata donkeys once Puppet and his bad boy buds have entered what Disney fans recall as Pleasure Island and is here called Funland and presided over by a decidedly creepy MC (Miles Taber).

wood-boy-dog-fish_3 Befriending Puppet along the way is feisty ragamuffin Wick (Veronica Mannion), and lest you forget that Wood Boy Dog Fish is, like the Italian tale that inspired it, the story of a puppet who wants nothing more than to become a real boy, this latest take on Pinocchio doesn’t stint on the emotional impact factor in its final scene.

Cast members Dring, Hohn, Long, O’Neill, Mannion, Martinez, Messmer, Royston, Silver, Taber, and Turbiak all deserve the highest of praise for assignments above and beyond an actor’s accustomed call of duty, with understudies Eric Fagundes and Zoe Yale poised to step into multiple roles at a moment’s notice.

Leah Harmon is stage manager and Jessic Morataya is assistant stage manager.

wood-boy-dog-fish_6 Sean T. Cawelti and his Rogue Artists Ensemble first blew me away a few years back with their Donna Reed-meets-Twilight Zone D Is For Dog, and Wood Boy Dog Fish makes it abundantly clear that lightning can indeed strike twice.

To put it mildly, this is one of the year’s most memorable productions.

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Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 28, 2015
Photos: Chelsea Sutton

*Greg Ballora, Cristina Bercowitz, Cawelti, Christine Papalexis, Jack Pullman, Taber, Brian White
**Development Team: Kristopher Bicknell, Cawelti, Hennessy, Matthew Hill, Lynn Jeffries, and Plum

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