Creativity craves structure, and vice versa.
There is creativity to spare in the New Phoenix Theatre's puppet-powered production of "Buffalo Pinocchio," Richard Lambert's adaptation of the classic fairy tale.
But structure is wanting in this show, which limps across its two acts like a marionette with tangled wires. Despite a few flickers of humor and magic, Lambert's post-apocalyptic take on the Italian fable often feels as wooden as its young protagonist.
The show is set in the New Phoenix Theatre, which we are meant to imagine is one of the last buildings standing in a bombed-out Buffalo. A lonely puppeteer -- played by the affable Todd Fuller with a touch of the mad scientist about him -- has taken up residence on the stage. His creations hang like effigies from the ceiling of that spooky space, lending the entire theater the feel of a haunted house.
Soon, a dusty troupe of unemployed actors hobbles along and implores the puppeteer to take them in as bombs continue to fall outside. What better way to pass the time, the Fuller's puppeteer suggests, than to tell a story?
And off we go, through a series of creaky vignettes based on Carlo Collodi's often twisted original. We watch as Pinocchio, portrayed with cloying exuberance by Lenny Ziolkowski, faces off with Talking Cricket (Mary Moebius), engages in a battle of wills with Geppetto (Fuller) and gets duped by a murderous fox and cat (Joni Russ and Franklin LaVoie).
The vignettes follow the fairy tale closely enough to provide a basic framework for the story, but the execution of each scene is marred by what would appear to be a lack of sufficient rehearsal. Actors frequently speak over one another, and sometimes seem unsure of where they should be onstage. The musical performances are similarly underpowered.
What's more, while Ziolkowski is one of Buffalo's most talented puppeteers, his falsetto rendition of Pinocchio becomes almost instantly grating. The effect, intended or not, becomes an increased sympathy with Pinocchio's various enemies.
From a purely visual perspective, however, the show is ravishing. It is tough to overstate the ingenuity, variety and strange charm of Franklin LaVoie's puppets and masks, which were constructed with help from Michele Costa. Their contorted faces and well-articulated limbs become the highlight of the production.
LaVoie's mammoth cat and fox masks, at once playful and sinister, are a delight. As are his various versions of Pinocchio, especially the very smallest one, which Ziolkowski manipulates into fits of neuroticism and temper with the mere flick of a wrist. Even puppets used for brief scenes, such as a coffin carried by a procession of tiny mice, are wildly detailed and ingenious exercises of imagination.
But the design elements alone, even those as innovative as LaVoie's, are not quite enough to save this production. In the end, "Buffalo Pinocchio" is a valiant attempt to redeploy a classic tale for these strange times that doesn't quite come to life.
2 stars out of four
"Buffalo Pinocchio," a drama, plays through Dec. 17 in the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. Tickets are $20 to $30, with pay-what-you-can performances on Thursdays. Call 853-1334 or visit newphoenixtheatre.org.