The Spaghetti and Meatball Players are back in action, battling existential angst, internal squabbles and creative doldrums in a rebooted version of The Commedia Pinocchio. It has appeal not just for the target audience of ages 8 and under, but for parents as well.
Lest you think you missed some new theatrical group here in town, the aforementioned Players have become an annual summer tradition at Columbia Children’s Theatre, presenting original takes on classic children’s stories presented in the style of commedia dell’ arte. Previous productions of Rapunzel and Cinderella went on to enjoy runs at the SoHo Playhouse in New York.
The style flourished in Renaissance Europe, and is a comedic ancestor of vaudeville, slapstick and burlesque. Stock characters — the clown, the braggart, the old man, the young beauty — acted out popular plotlines while relying heavily on improvisation. Modern figures such as Punch and Judy and the DC Comics universe’s Harley Quinn are derived from commedia antecedents, and the genre’s visual legacy lives on in the costumes and masks associated with Mardi Gras and Carnival.
The Spaghetti and Meatball troupe is flamboyant in performance, leaning on heavy, faux-Italian accents. The actors often break character and the fourth wall to explain their process to the audience or bicker with each other, before returning to the actual story, in which everyone plays multiple parts. It’s like Benny Hill taking over a circus and reenacting a familiar tale with lots of physical comedy for the little ones, while adding sly topical references that only the grown-ups in attendance will get.
Somewhere along the way, a condensed version of the actual storyline plays out: A lonely old woodcarver fashions a magical piece of wood into a talking marionette, who then tries to become a real boy, but makes all the unwise decisions that a real boy can make, each leading to a lesson learned.
CCT has performed a version of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s book The Adventures of Pinocchio on and off for 13 years, but artistic director Jerry Stevenson penned this new adaptation, which debuted earlier in June. Cleverly, the playwright, who also directs, went meta, with the Players — Rosetta (Mary Miles), Pantalone (Julian Deleon, alternating with Luke Holt), Arlequino (Paul Lindley II) and Il Capitano (Baker Morrison) — experiencing clinical burnout due to doing the same job repeatedly. Salvation arrives in the perky persona of Columbine (London Saunders), who gamely declares herself to be the “Spunky New Girl,” as evidenced by her Zooey Deschanel-style glasses.
On opening weekend, Saunders brought boundless energy and terrific projection to Columbine’s portrayal of Pinocchio, while Lindley made Arlechino into even more of a prima donna than in previous years. A week after opening, both actors held an adults-only audience in the palm of their hands for nearly five minutes as they milked every drop of hilarity from a scene where a dim policeman is unable to pronounce “meadow of miracles.”
While zany costumes and wigs, outrageous accents and sound effects, and pratfalls galore kept the youngsters enthralled, Stevenson’s script was unquestionably aimed at an older demographic. Among others, I caught references to: Iggy Pop, Two-Buck Chuck, Glengarry Glen Ross, The People’s Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, K-Mart’s blue-light specials, the opening number of A Chorus Line, the Paleo diet, Forrest Gump, Twelve Angry Men, alliteration, iambic meter, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, vegans, Brexit, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the now-forgotten existence of pay phones. There was even a nod to the “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It, in which Shakespeare gave a shout-out to “the lean and slippered pantaloon,” i.e. the commedia figure Pantalone.
At approximately 66 minutes, plus an extra five to 10 minutes of laughter depending on the audience, the play might have run a little longer than necessary, and I did notice some restlessness from some of the tykes in attendance at that first morning performance. As the show continues to develop organically, I might like to see a little of the framing story trimmed down, and perhaps the canonical vignettes (the conniving of the Cat and Fox, the boys who become donkeys, the whale that swallows Pinocchio, etc.) developed in more detail and mined for more humor.
Nevertheless, I always look forward to these annual productions, and intentionally timed this particular one to be the 250th stage show I’ve seen in Columbia in the last 11 years.
What: Family Fun Night
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.
When: Friday, July 12, 5-8 p.m. (performance of The Commedia Pinocchio starts at 6 p.m.)
More: 803-691-4548, columbiachildrenstheatre.com
Morning performances continue on July 18 and 25 at the Columbia Children’s Theatre