Last year, I was beckoned to a warehouse in the middle of Los Angeles, and set loose to explore the mysteries of Kaiden Project: Walls Grow Thin, which was produced by Rogue Artists Ensemble and East West Players. I was blown away by how that story unfolded, and their masterful use of puppetry to help convey some of the darker elements at play. The show was my first introduction to the group, and I walked away looking forward to their next work.
Flash forward to a few months ago, when I heard that Rogue Artists Ensemble were reviving their dark re-telling of Pinocchio, something I had missed the last time it was staged in 2015. I was definitely intrigued and eager to see it. And now that I have journeyed to the little town of Shoreside, I can say that Wood Boy Dog Fish is definitely one show you do not want to miss.
In this version of the tale, Geppetto (Ben Messmer) and his friend Blue (Tane Kawasaki) have built the Dog Fish Adventure Ride, a homage to the mythical creature that haunts the town of Shoreside. While it’s up for debate whether or not anyone has seen this legendary creature, it’s a no brainer that it is a cash cow for the town; the carnival and ride bring in the tourists, and thus, keep the town thriving. However, when the tale begins, Blue is dead, and the ride no longer functions…a point of contention between the townspeople and Geppetto.
Actually, to back track, the show begins an hour before the curtain even rises, where guests can walk through the carnival-like atmosphere of the lobby to help set the tone of the piece. While there, you can pick up bits and pieces of the history of the town, along with the legend of the Dog Fish. Interactions with local townsfolk, carnival games, and more are available for you to check out, and it was a fun way to get into the story a bit more. At one point, we even participated in a game of pin the tail on the donkey, whereas my fiancée was the one doing the pinning, and I had donned a pair of donkey legs for her to pin the tail on me. These fun little distractions really were a great, extra way to get people into the feeling of visiting Shoreside, and definitely set up what we were to expect once the curtain rose. And when the show did begin, what a treat it was. From the opening moments of Fox (Amir Levi) and Cat (Tyler Bremer) took to stage, to the conclusion of the story, I was enthralled all around.
The show had a very early Tim Burton-esque vibe to it, with visual cues that would look at home in Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Set design had a certain low-fi, but high production value to it. The town did look dirty and run down, as it was meant to, but the quality of the work and craftsmanship behind it was uncanny. Each set change was dizzying in how they pulled them off, with incredible amounts of details packed in. There was even an 3D sequence in the second act of the show that was equal parts mind-blowing and terrifying. I was incredibly impressed with that!
The story itself was wonderful as well; taking a tale we all know and love and turning it on its head is no easy feat, but playwright Chelsea Sutton did a masterful job of it. Though there will be inevitable comparisons to Walt Disney’s version of the story, as it is the most well-known, this stood out on its own, with Sutton taking the story in bold new directions which I loved. I’d venture to say it was darker than the original source material at times, and made it even better. While not outright scary, there were some frightening moments, and many instances of dark (and we’re talking very dark) humor. It reminded, in some ways, of Peter and the Starcatcher, another show that is a re-telling of a tale we all know. I’ve seen Peter numerous times over the years, just because of how unique it is. However, Wood Boy Dog Fish definitely blew that one out of the water, and strikes me as one I will be seeing again during its run…that’s how good it was.
While not as immersive as Kaiden Project, the show did a great job of bringing the audience into the story, with cast members interacting with the audience in many ways throughout the performance. The Garry Marshall Theatre was the perfect size for this production, making it a much more intimate affair. This was due to Sean T. Cawelti’s direction. Not only did he really help bring the show to life here, but also in general. He has a real knack for stage direction, and it is impressive how he showcases the actor’s strength in their characters.
Speaking of, the cast, from major players to bit parts, were top notch. Messmer’s portrayal of Geppetto as a sad, lonely, drunk was heartbreaking, and really made you feel for him. Rudy Martinez as Wood Boy showed off equal parts of playful charm and naivety, bringing the wooden boy, who wants to be real, to life. Tame Kawaskai’s Blue, Lisa Dring’s Wick, Paul Turbiak’s Cricket, and Miles Taber’s MC were all wonderful additions to the roster of characters as well, each bringing their own unique twists to the characters we know so well.
I mentioned Levi and Bremer’s Fox and Cat before, and I have to mention them again…to me, they were the stand outs of the piece. They burst onto the stage in the opening moments, and captivated my attention. Hilarious, raunchy, and full of surprises, the two of them set the tone perfectly…which is no easy task when one of them is playing a mute! Keiana Richard’s Fire Eater was another standout. Despite not seeing her face for most of her performance, she commanded the stage with her presence and voice, and quite frankly, terrified the hell out of me. That feeling only got worse in later scenes, when the depths of her madness were revealed.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the puppetry work being done throughout the show. I’ve always been in love with puppets, and was blown away by what Rogue Artists accomplished during Kaiden Project. In Wood Boy Dog Fish, it was taken to a whole new level. Wood Boy’s movements were so real it was scary. I stopped noticing the black garbed figures early on, and just saw this little wooden boy on the stage. Kudos to Martinez for pulling double duty as both his voice and one of his puppeteers. Cricket was also a ton of fun, and was hilarious to watch pop up throughout the production. Even down to the small, inconsequential puppets, some made from ordinary, every-day household items, blew me away. This was puppetry work at its best, especially on stage.
Overall, Wood Boy Dog Fish really blew me away. I truly loved it, and would definitely recommend it to people looking for a fun, new twist on Pinocchio. Kudos to the entire Rogue Artists Ensemble team on a job well done. Don’t miss this run, as who knows if and when it will be back again.
Wood Boy Dog Fish runs now until June 24, 2018 at the Garry Marshall Theatre. For more information, and to buy tickets, visit the Garry Marshall Theatre website at: https://www.garrymarshalltheatre.org/wood-boy-dog-fish/
All photos by Chelsea Sutton, and used courtesy of Rogue Artists Ensemble