Theater Review: Rogue Artists Ensemble’s Wood Boy Dog Fish

When I arrived at opening weekend of Wood Boy Dog Fish, the world premiere production currently being presented by the Rogue Artists Ensemble at the Bootleg Theater, I was given a pair of 3D glasses along with my playbill. This was the first of many surprises in store during this highly visual, innovative take on the classic The Adventures of Pinocchio. In addition to wearing the glasses for the play’s climactic sequence, you must also be prepared to have candy thrown at you and even to get wet (ever so slightly, I promise).

Paul Turbiak as
Paul Turbiak as “Fire Eater.” Photo Credit: Chelsea Sutton.

Just as this production, which combined original music, puppetry, projections, and special effects, is not your grandmother’s live theater, this is not the Pinocchio you remember from childhood. Here’s the thing—Pinocchio (I am referring primarily to the Disney animated classic) is a very dark tale to begin with. To recap, the entire message of Pinocchio is basically that if you’re not completely honest and moral, you will be transformed into a donkey and shipped off to the salt mines. But this macabre production, written by Chelsea Sutton, is definitely not suitable for Disney audiences and managed to make the donkey plot point even more twisted in a way I will not spoil. There are also other alterations—Geppetto is a drunk, Funland appears to be a giant, demented orgy, and Pinocchio is literally tortured before the first act is even over.

Willem Long as “Cat” and Stephanie O’Neill as “Fox.
Willem Long as “Cat” and Stephanie O’Neill as “Fox.” Photo Credit: Chelsea Sutton.

Wood Boy Dog Fish features original music by Ego Plum and Adrien Prevost, but rather than bringing out the lighthearted aspects as the beloved music in the Disney film did, these songs only added to the dark, eerie mood. While I appreciated it, I do think the play could have done without the music. With so much already going on onstage it was almost excessive. That being said, great attention to detail was clear in every aspect of the sets and costumes, and the ensemble cast of 13 gave highly physical, energetic performances, easily meeting the complicated demands of the piece.

Ben Messmer as
Ben Messmer as “Geppetto.” Photo Credit: Chelsea Sutton.

Directed by Sean T. Caweiti, this story faces the logistical challenge of having a puppet as one of its main characters. I could not decide if this rather crude, weirdly expressive Pinocchio, handled by a team of three puppeteers clad in head-to-toe black, was kind of cute or the stuff of nightmares. He was certainly endearing, and I was constantly impressed by how well the puppeteers conveyed his emotions. Considering how elaborate everything was, I only noticed a few extremely minor technical hiccups on opening weekend.

Rogue Artists Ensemble is known for their innovative combinations of ancient storytelling techniques, including the puppetry and masks seen here, with modern media and effects to create a unique style of live performance. Before the final, climactic sequence in act two, a projection urged the audience to don their 3D glasses. The 3D portion was just brief enough to get the point across without being overwhelming or headache-inducing, and I was pleased by the quality of the effect. In many ways, this play is an assault on the senses—if you include tasting the candy tossed into the crowd, they have them all covered except for smell.

Miles Taber as “Emcee of Funland.
Miles Taber as “Emcee of Funland.” Photo Credit: Chelsea Sutton.

While the “Wood Boy” half of the title is rather obvious, the “Dog Fish” is the original antagonist from Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio book—for Disney fans, this beast ultimately became Monstro the Whale. The Dogfish is actually a rather terrifying creature to behold—I could see him fitting right in on American Horror Story. Generally, I felt at times the play elaborated too much on new, added storylines while merely grazing the surface of classic elements that could have been further explored. Pinocchio’s lying and subsequent nose growth, for example, is only introduced rather briefly in act two, and it seemed to be done only because audiences would surely expect it, with next to no time spent on the actual plot implications or message of it. On the flip side, I could have done without a manufactured, unrequited love plotline between Geppetto, who is just a hot mess of a character in this iteration, and Blue, who is not a fairy but rather a deceased poet and ride architect with blue hair. It was an oddly sentimental element in a play that seemed to take most of the sentiment out of the original story—in this version, Geppetto makes Pinocchio purely by accident (whiskey is heavily involved), and seems to have zero desire for a son.

Harkening back to my American Horror Story comparison, I feel this show is best described as American Horror Story: Pinocchio, which I mean as a compliment. If you’re seeking an innovative, complex, modern theater experience with a dark twist on a classic tale, you will not be disappointed.

Wood Boy Dog Fish runs at the Bootleg Theater through December 12th with performances primarily on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with a few alterations for the Thanksgiving holiday. Tickets are general admission and cost $23 if purchased in advance online at www.bootlegtheater.org.


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