Rogue Artist Ensemble’s Wood Boy Dog Fish is swimming with a sense of play, but also a sense of darkness. It begins by inviting guests into the immersive carnival world of Shoreside, where fun and frivolity fill the air. Popcorn and other nostalgia-inducing fair snacks are for sale, and carnival games abound. Shoreside is equally macabre and whimsical, a sort of familiar yet dream-like Coney Island, stricken with something twisted, sad, and strange. To lighten the mood, there is a complementary candy bar, featuring colorful taffies and hard candies, a booth for getting your tarot read, and beanbags to toss. You’ll feel like a kid again.
This is the immersive preshow for Rogue Artist’s Ensemble’s newest theatrical production, Wood Boy Dog Fish, a macabre reinterpretation of Pinocchio. Patrons are encouraged to arrive an hour before their showtime (and please do!) to explore the detailed and interactive immersive carnival. Afterwards guests take their seats for the main performance. The show itself may not be immersive, but the preshow makes up for that–and if you’ve seen Rogue Artist’s work before you know they never fail to impress in creating a signature, incredibly detailed handmade aesthetic. Everything they do is crafty, fun, and drenched in the love they have for their sets, masks and puppets.
As the lights dim, audiences settle into their seats and enter Shoreside, a town where people reside in fear and are content to live their lowest lives. Geppetto is a scorned and mocked idealist. The town’s main source of economic stimulus comes from its tourist-attraction carnival, specifically the Dogfish ride, an ominous thrill ride designed to challenge riders to face their greatest fears. The whimsy of the carnival setting is juxtaposed with the grief of our Geppetto. Drunk, miserable, and apathetic, he mourns the loss of his beloved Blue, a woman he loved, who has conveniently, but unbeknownst to him, now turned into a friendly ghost. Blue gives life to a “wood-be” Pinocchio (he actually remains nameless the entirety of the show), one of Geppetto’s puppets, in an effort to reach him again, break him out of his stupor and repossess the Dogfish ride they devoted themselves to before her tragic death. The Dogfish, mascot of Blue’s ride, looms impressionistically throughout, making its presence known to us both literally and figuratively as an expression of fear.
Throughout the show, our unnamed Puppet struggles to find a sense of identity and belonging. In striving to be more alive, he commits many human follies, succumbing to the recognizable and human cravings for pleasure, attention, and fame. He finds a friend in, Wick, an adventurous young girl who seeks a life of fun and adventure for herself, away from the oppressive world of Shoreside. Villains who disguise themselves as friends try to take advantage of Puppet’s naïveté and he has many brushes with danger and death. All the while, Blue, the wise and loving poltergeist, trails after Geppetto, urging him not to make the mistakes she did.
This work is beautifully enhanced by the talented staff behind it. Chelsea Sutton’s script, in collaboration with Rogue Artists Ensemble, captures a sense of nostalgic seaside innocence. Rudy Martinez’s Puppet combines beelining-toward-adulthood brassiness and childhood naïveté in a way that that makes him immediately endearing and funny to audience members. Tyler Bremer as Cat and Amir Levi as Fox bring a playful antagonism to their roles as villains. Lisa Dring’s Wick, Puppet’s loyal comrade, aptly captures the energy and hopeful expectation of childhood, and Ben Messmer’s performance of Geppetto carries a feeling of genuine sorrow and regret. Finally, the original music by Adrien Prévost is affecting in its ability to narrate the onstage journey, while reaching audiences with the poignancy of its relatable themes.
Dark and dreamy, fun and sad, Wood Boy Dog Fish meditates on loss, regret, love, innocence, ambition, closeness, fear, friendship, and what it means to be “real.” The show feels as authentic as our little wood puppet turns out to be at the end.