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Greg Allen Talks About Pinocchio And Frankenstein

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 27, 2012 6:00PM

Robert Fenton as Pinocchio
Neo-Futurist founder Greg Allen has always delighted in recontextualizing the familiar. In the course of his long career in theater he's made fart jokes seem abstract, transformed Dostoyevsky into a kind of game show, and extracted the heretofore dormant bawdiness from Eugene O'Neill. His new show at The Neo-Futurarium boasts a typically unwieldy title: The Strange and Terrible True Tale of Pinocchio (The Wooden Boy) as told by Frankenstein’s Monster (The Wretched Creature). But there's something about his decision to fuse these two famous stories that, perhaps paradoxically, has led him to create a remarkably faithful adaptation of both. We had the chance to talk with him about how he got the idea to combine Collodi and Shelley, the political side of the source material, and the scary side of parenting.

CHICAGOIST: What gave you the idea for mashing up these two stories?

GREG ALLEN: Having written plays based on Kafka, Ibsen, Beckett, and Freud and directed outrageous adaptations of Buchner and O'Neill, I knew I loved to adapt known works for the stage. By starting with the audience's collective knowledge of a subject, I can subvert their expectations and offer a unique alternative vision that makes them question everything they know. Looking for something along these lines I struck upon Pinocchio, having bought a bilingual version of Collodi's 1882 original at Powell's Bookstore some years before. Pinocchio seemed perfect for my purposes; everyone knew it, but everyone knew it wrong. The famous Disney version was a horribly bastardized white-washing of the original which was full of death, mayhem, absurdity, and mixed-messages, especially by today's standards of a "children's story". I was also looking at adapting Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the stage, so I was listening to an unedited version in my car as I was driving around. I was shocked by the similarities of the two central characters: both were "created" without a mother, both were abandoned by and searching for their father, both had issues with what separated them from humanity. And yet they were also perfect opposites: one appeared as an innocent child and was constantly forgiven for his evil behavior, and the other was perceived as a hideous adult who was never given a single chance despite his attempts at kindness. At first I wanted to just have Pinocchio meet the Monster during the show or maybe have him interview him. But then, since I needed a narrator for Pinocchio, I came up with the idea of presenting the entire show through the Monster's eyes, and I never looked back.

C: During the creation process, what surprised you the most? How did puppetry enter in?

GREG ALLEN: The two things that surprised me the most where how personal the story was for me and how political it became. I found it very easy to identify with the Monster, to write his furious diatribes on betrayal from my heart. There was a lot of fury in me, both historically and contemporarily, and it all came out in the voice of the Creature. But even then, the twists and turns of some of his monologues really surprised me. (The fact that all of his lines emerged in blank verse was also never planned.) Embarking on this project during an election year also wound up coloring the show substantially. Pinocchio's endless capitalist gluttony resonated with everything the Republican candidates were spouting in the media, how it was all about making money and becoming a self-made man without anyone's assistance, how the meritocracy deserved their dominance, how the rich would take care of the poor if they were just left alone to do it. Pinocchio seems to try to assert this view of the American Dream over and over, but by using the Monster's perspective as framing device - someone who will never be an equal no matter what he does - the irony and hypocrisy of this all came crashing down. In this way I love how contemporary and immediate the play feels.

The debate about the original novel centers around whether it's a story of self-actualization or a story of obedience. I (and the Monster) obviously view it as the latter. Therefore puppetry was the perfect metaphor for the staging and was an immediate element in my vision for the show. The realization that Pinocchio is actually more free as a puppet and more of a puppet when he turns into a "real boy" also helped. I've used puppetry of one sort or another in almost every show I've ever done - from the Cabbage Patch doll in Strange Interlude at the Goodman to the shadow puppet telling of the parable in K., and working again with Dan Kerr-Hobert really inspired this to expand. He included hand puppets, Bunraku, an uber-marionette, shadow screens, life-size shadow puppets, and all sorts of outrageous stagecraft. And he insisted that the puppets do more than simply solve impossible staging dilemmas (like how do you show someone swimming in the ocean on stage?). He made sure that the puppets really live and are integrated into the production as more than just pretty devices.

C: It seems to me that when it comes to adaptations, most versions of Frankenstein miss the tender aspects of the original story, and most versions of Pinocchio miss the grotesque aspects. Do you agree?

GREG ALLEN: Absolutely. I gathered every film or stage version I could find of Pinocchio and they all make the story rather cute and innocent and happy. Yet the Collodi original is very perverse and dark, more akin to a Grimm's Fairy Tale. Pinocchio is whipped, drowned, burned, deformed, and hung by the neck for God's sake! It may have been a children's story when it was written but certainly not by contemporary standards. I also read some historiography of the novel and it's absolutely fascinating how Pinocchio has radically transformed over the 20th century and yet never fallen out of the public consciousness. I was very excited to stage the "true" story of Pinocchio and, I'm glad to say, this is probably the most authoritative version out there, even with the wordplay and the Frankenstein framing device. As for Frankenstein, I do have quite a bit of reverence for the two James Whale movie versions, even though they are far from the Shelley original. It's an epistolary novel after all, and basically impossible to adapt loyally. But Boris Karloff does bring an impressive amount of humanity to the role which is why I think everyone pictures him when they think of Frankenstein's Monster. It's a beautiful, brilliant performance. I also watched a number of other versions of Frankenstein, from the "true" to the preposterous, but I think Karloff did it best.

C: What's the scariest thing about being a father? Did that help you in your approach?

GREG ALLEN: There are numerous examples of terrible parenting in both Pinocchio and Frankenstein, and therefore in the show. Geppetto and Dr. F are both horrible father figures. Having raised my own kids I certainly was able to identify with a lot of Pinocchio's dreadful behavior. I knew the greed and the whining and the solipsism and knew how to write a character that would turn on a dime from asshole to sweetheart, just like real kids do. I also knew what it was like to love someone despite their horrible behavior, to have that undercurrent of endless love for someone when they're being a beast. You're absolutely furious at your kid but at the same time would unquestionably destroy anyone who tried to harm them. But somehow Geppetto and Dr. Frankenstein let their "kids" go out in the world with no guidance. That sense of being out of control of the thing you love the most terrifies me, as it does every parent, and yet you have to ultimately let them go. So I guess, in answer to your question, the scariest thing about being a father was the fear of separation. Fucking up your kid in some way you learn is inevitable, but to really lose your kid is the unspeakable. Both Geppetto and Frankenstein lose their kids and this is unforgivable.

C: What do you think Shelley and Collodi would have made of our technology-saturated existence?

GREG ALLEN: I don't honestly think it was even within their world of consciousness. I think our contemporary technology has gone so far beyond what they could ever dream of that they simply would drop dead if teleported into 2012. And I'm proud that my stage version basically relies on no technological tricks - it's all "analogue" if you will, just the way I like it.

The Strange and Terrible True Tale of Pinocchio (The Wooden Boy) as told by Frankenstein’s Monster (The Wretched Creature) runs through April 14 at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland