See enough shows in Lexington and you begin to recognize the creative signature of certain directors and designers. For Lexington Children's Theatre artistic director Vivian Snipes, that signature includes an imagination riper than an 8-year-old's combined with the practical know-how of a theater veteran.
Snipes is at the helm again for the theater's second production of the season, Pinocchio, and her signature talents as a director are on full display.
Her cast and crew masterfully navigate a technically complex, thematically layered show that is unmistakably "Vivian" in its feel, luring kids into their imagination — and the lessons of the material — in fresh and unexpected ways — kind of like how Pinocchio was lured into going to Dreamland, only no one is turned into a donkey.
Newly adapted by James Still from the book by Carlo Collodi, LCT's Pinocchio is a truncated but faithful version of the famous tale of a wooden puppet determined to become a real boy. He is sidetracked by a wild heart and bouts of reckless adventure until the Blue Fairy (gracefully played by Ashley Isenhower) helps him understand the value of friends, family and home.
Snipes' decision to set the show in the Renaissance era and to heavily incorporate elements of the commedia dell'arte pays off. Period costuming, masks, stilts and puppetry lend a feel of Old World magic to the show while underscoring the artistic themes of self-determination versus external manipulation that color Pinocchio's journey.
The young ensemble cast deserves praise not only for mastering a dizzying choreography of set changes and complex blocking, but for developing animated characters, many of them performed via puppetry.
Lafayette High School freshman Cody Taylor had the audience in stitches with his comically slow and affected accent as Snail, one of the Blue Fairy's friends who helps Pinocchio. He and Ashil Lee's use of puppets (she plays another friend, Crickett) is impressive, as is 15-year-old Hallie Hargus in the lead role.
Hargus' Pinocchio is a bit of a brat — at least at first. He whines, he won't listen to grown-ups, he never wants to work, and he only wants to have adventures. Like many of us in real life, he gets adventures, but not necessarily the ones he bargained for. As he learns from his choices, good and bad, he starts to think of others and appreciate loved ones who help him in hard times, and eventually, he goes home to become a real boy.
Hargus is a spirited and energetic performer; her use of Pinocchio the puppet is accomplished, and her insight into the character is palpable.
Hargus and company are at their best during the show's most dramatic moments, such as when Pinocchio is lost at sea, only to be swallowed by a shark. The ensemble's execution combined with Carolyn Voss' spooky, lost-at-sea lighting and Jerome Will's foreboding sound design is visually striking and thematically effective.
Ultimately, Pinocchio is a tale of finding one's humanity. In less lofty terms, it is at least a tale of how not to be a brat. To both ends, Snipes' version of Pinocchio succeeds.