Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Ensemble of PINOCCHIO. Photo by Milo Bue.
Review: PINOCCHIO at Neverbird Project
By Bec Willet
A youth-driven company, Neverbird Project produces theater performed by and accessible to both hearing and Deaf persons. Through the use of American Sign Language, spectacle, and wonderment, they take existing children’s stories and “recreate them in collaboration with deaf and hearing kids.” In their latest production, PINOCCHIO this approach of reinvention and collaboration has passed over the simplified and cartoonish and borne a story that is magical, relevant and touching.
Neverbird Project was created out of collaborations between teaching artists Levi Holloway and Katy Bosa with the Alexander Graham Bell School of Chicago. These artists and the adults and children that they surround themselves with clearly excel in their respective fields. But regardless of expertise, education — for everyone — is king. Co-Artistic Director Holloway comments, “You’ll see a part of a kid who you thought you knew, you thought you knew this kid. And suddenly they just DO something. They blow up! They blossom, they, they have this way of telling the story… a way you never thought of! You couldn’t think of because you’re not them. And that’s really what we’re trying to teach each other. That every identity is important and critical in all of our makeup.”
Both the focus on education and collaborative creation not only serve the community but the work that comes out of it — as is evident in their production of PINOCCHIO. The design challenge of creating multiple locations at multiple times — some even in magical lands — was done beautifully through the direction and design. Milo Bue’s nautically-themed set and Claire Chrzan’s symbolic stars set us adrift on a sea of fantasy, opening our minds up to the possibility of this story. With each scene change, there was a surprise — something new, something beautiful: a silhouetted actor communicating in sign language, a light that seemed to be a star but was revealed as person, a beautifully sung version of “God Only Knows.”
The directors’ note, which begins with a first rehearsal anecdote of 10-year-old cast member’s announcement to the room that “To be sentient is to feel pain.” leaves you with no surprise that these actors’ performances — actors who can also sing, dance, and sign — were humorous, mature, and insightful. With the exception of one actor, the cast, regardless of the gender identity of the character, is composed of female actors. The one male actor, Chris Chemlik as Geppetto, was outstanding. He was not only warm and fatherly, but also human and complex. He was not only a father but a lover, and then a grieving widower, allowing for the parents in the audience to see themselves on stage, just as the children could. This choice to challenge the classical interpretation by allowing Gepetto depth, and neutralizing the gender between his relationship with Pinocchio made this story no one only about father and son, but a story about and for all children and all parents.
When the lights came up at the end of this play’s seventy minutes, my friend and I looked at each other both surprised to have tears in our eyes. When entering the theater I expected noses, puppets, and entertaining jingles, but I left contemplative and moved as Hanna’s words to her husband Gepetto echoed in my thoughts, “You can’t know joy without pain, dummy.” Don’t be fooled; this is no ordinary children’s theater — this is theater for everyone.
Neverbird Project’s PINOCCHIO presented in association with Chicago Children’s Theater runs through May 7th. For more information visit chicagochildrenstheatre.org.