Review: !Viva Pinocho! A Mexican Pinocchio
by Karen Smith
Teatro SEA Inc. (New York/Puerto Rico)
Presented at the 8TH FESTIVAL INTERNACIONAL TITERÍAS 20 April 18-25 México City

Manuel Morán is the solo performer of ¡Viva Pinocho! A Mexican Pinocchio, a 55 minute multi-media, bilingual  production for adults and children of six years and above. Manuel Morán is the play's one actor, the voice of 16 characters, and its sole puppeteer. ¡Viva Pinocho! 's puppetry techniques include marionettes, masks, objects, shadows, and video animation.  This is a very rich and visually exciting production.
Teatro SEA presented its beautifully designed and well-acted new play six times at three different venues at the recent Festival Internacional Titerías held in Mexico City this April, where it was performed in Spanish for local audiences.   Richard Marino, the company's Managing Director, was the company's tour stage manager.  Moving the large and complex set three times from theatre to theatre was no mean feat!  And the play's demands on the solo performer are considerable!  This is a strenuous production!  The four members of Teatro SEA who went to Mexico City were thrilled with the audience reaction, especially when they performed the play for children.  It was clear that the young audience members thoroughly enjoyed ¡Viva Pinocho!  Moreover, they were intrigued and delighted by all the theatrical and puppetry forms and techniques that were on show.

The intention behind this version of Carlo Collodi's story of the puppet-boy Pinocchio was twofold:  (1) to create a new play and production that offered audiences a rich display of puppetry and theatre techniques and (2) to provoke a dialogue  between audience and performance about important social issues while, at the same time, telling a much-loved and exciting story.  Teatro SEA's Mexican Pinocho was written explicitly to provoke thought in its audiences, and provoke it did.  In Mexico City, the young audiences in particular were open to and reflective of the play's message.

As described in the program notes, ¡Viva Pinocho! is "a re-telling of the classic folktale … from the perspective of a young Mexican immigrant, Pinocho.   Audiences follow the puppet boy's journey to understanding his sense of self while struggling to maintain his Latino heritage and find his home in a new land (the United States)."  It is clear that Manuel Morán, also the writer, producer and director of ¡Viva Pinocho!,knows and loves the original story by Carlo Collodi,  and appreciates the Disney animated version, too. But he also saw in this classic story a means of exploring themes that deeply touch and affect the lives of many Americans today -- the question of immigration.  

As Manuel writes,
In any case, I wanted this adaptation to achieve something different: not simply to present an artistic production, but to explore a theme that would provoke dialogue, as much in the younger audience as in the adult one.  In spite of the fact that the theme of immigration is one of the most popular, if not the most popular theme when referring to our Latino community, it is one that is rarely discussed with our children. In addition to immigration, this adaptation explores many other diverse themes such as identity and cultural preservation, prejudice and assimilation, among others.  It is my hope that this production, in addition to its entertainment value, might serve as an incentive for dialogue regarding these themes, both in homes and at schools.

¡Viva Pinocho! A Mexican Pinocchio succeeds in provoking the need for such a dialogue.

This multi-media production is beautifully staged.  It is a visually very pleasing, if busy, production.  Puerto Rican José López built the Pinocho puppet and the intricate and exceptionally well crafted sets in Teatro SEA's studio/workshop base in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Indeed, next to the solo performer, the star of !Viva Pinocho! is the complex set.  As Manuel explained to me, !Viva Pinocho! is an opportunity to showcase José's great talent.  Technical director Daniel D'Ambrosi and Morán recreate the lights of Lucrecia Briceño to great effect.

The masterfully constructed turnabout set is multi-functional.   In the first and third acts of the play, the set is a Lost & Found railway station office somewhere in Mexico close to the border with the United States. Typical Mexican elements, such as a wooden cart, lanterns, an altar, etc., are precisely (and artistically) arranged on, in front of, and around the office façade. Lost luggage, that fill the cart and spill over onto the stage, "tell" stories of their owners' lives by way of video projection.   Among these stories are border crossing attempts, which are a means of introducing the central theme of the play.

In the second act of the play, the main set turns 180 degrees to reveal a carnival/amusement park scene, symbolizing the United States, here depicted as a land of entrapment. In the original tale, the Land of Toys (Paese dei Palocchi) mixes the aspects of a morality tale with those of social critique.  And so, too, is this the case in the Teatro SEA version of the tale. If the Disney version of Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio had changed the Land of Toys (the setting in the original novel) to Pleasure Island (ostensibly, an amusement park in the animated U.S. version), Teatro SEA's version is similar in more ways to the Pleasure Island-amusement park concept.  Both places are cursed.  It is implied in the Disney version (perhaps even more a morality tale than the Collodi original) that Pleasure Island has some sort of bad reputation.  Disney's creation physically transforms the "wayward" boys into donkeys.  This includes Pinocchio .  In the Teatro SEA version, the amusement park is the United States, where the leering Uncle Sam image is no open-armed, benevolent welcomer to the Land of Promise and Opportunity.  Rather, it is here that the well-intentioned migrants are turned into donkeys and beasts of burden.

During the second movement of this main middle act of ¡Viva Pinocho! in  which the story of Pinocho takes place, the top of the set is transformed to symbolize the "whale" by means of a dropped screen on which shadows are projected.  A set of stairs leads to the "roof" of the set, and into the "belly" of the whale "descends" the actor-puppeteer Morán with Pinocho.  The Monstro of Teatro SEA's production is no fish-like mammal.  It is a submarine, and its purpose in the play is to signify United States military might.  And that might is callous, cruel, and overpowering.

One criticism of ¡Viva Pinocho! A Mexican Pinocchio I heard in Mexico City last April was that the play deals in two stereotyped images: the stereotypical poncho-sombrero-clad-dozing "Mexican", i.e., the victim; and the Industrial-Military-Complex-and-Ugly American bigot-racist stereotype of the United States, i.e., the victimizer.  While  some adult audience members may have felt the portrayal was a little too simple in its stereotyping of Mexican immigrants and U.S. persecution, for a 55-minute production the play succeeds in broaching immigration issues with children and presenting the complex nature of the issue.

And in the light of Arizona passing its recent controversial state law targeting illegal immigrants, a law that would negatively profile the Latino community, perhaps Teatro SEA’s “simple” depiction of victim and victimizer may not be too far off the mark. It is clear that intelligent and sensitive dialogue over such an important social issue is more needed than ever.

The play ends when the set turns 180 degrees, reverting in the third and final act to the Lost & Found railway station.  It now appears as an apt symbol of innocence and love lost and dignity and redemption found.  But perhaps the play’s ultimate theme is that you can only be truly lost if you don't seek and find who you really are.  It reminds audiences that each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her destiny.

Teatro SEA was represented in Mexico City y: Manuel Morán, producer, director, author, and actor; Richard Marino, the company's Managing Director; Daniel D'Ambrosi, technical director; and José López, puppet and set designer. Deborah Hunt, who did not accompany the company, designed and made the expressive masks.