A Kabuki-influenced version of “Pinocchio” may strike some as the sort of theatrical experiment best suited to an avant-garde troupe performing in a dimly lit basement. But Wendy Lement and Steven Bogart are putting it on the big stage at Wheelock Family Theatre beginning Saturday. They promise all the laughs and tugged heartstrings traditional to the tale of the wooden puppet who wants to become a real boy, along with some new shading.
“When we went back to the original story, I was startled at how funny it is,” says Lement, Wheelock’s producer and co-artistic director. “It’s both hysterically funny and very dark in places, and both of those are combined in Kabuki.”
Kabuki is a highly stylized form of traditional Japanese drama involving singing, dancing, and elaborate costumes and makeup. With performances through Feb. 22 at Wheelock, this “Pinocchio” is a world premiere version of the story of the mischievous creation of the poor puppeteer Geppetto.
Lement joined Wheelock in 2012, and this is only the second season that she has programmed herself. She had known Bogart since they were both students at Emerson in the 1980s and thought of him as she looked to bring new creative voices to Wheelock.
Bogart is known both for working with young people and for his restless creativity. After 22 years as a Lexington High School drama teacher, he’s been building his name as a playwright and director around the city. He helmed a memorable “Cabaret” for the American Repertory Theater, with his former student Amanda Palmer as the Emcee. Next up, he’ll direct the New England premiere of “Shockheaded Peter” for Company One, featuring the “steamcrunk” band Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys.
“I floated the idea of doing a ‘Pinocchio’ that he would direct,” Lement says, “and also the idea of setting it in a non-Western culture. That has to do very much with the mission of the theater — of nontraditional casting, but also exposing the audience to theater of different cultures.”
But if it was not set in Pinocchio’s native Italy, then where? Soon she and Bogart discovered their mutual experience with Japanese theater. Lement had directed a couple of Kabuki-influenced shows. Bogart lived in Japan for six months in his 20s, had a Japanese painting teacher here for many years, and even spoke the language, although he says he’s no longer fluent.
They saw how masks and transformations were common to Japanese theater and “Pinocchio,” the 1880s novel by Carlo Collodi that spawned countless adaptations, including Disney’s classic animated film.
“We’re not Kabuki experts, we’re not doing pure, traditional Kabuki,” Bogart says. “We’re Kabuki influenced, Noh influenced, even Butoh theater-influenced, pulling all of these elements in to create the story.”
So audiences will face a stage backed by sliding screens, not unlike those in a traditional Japanese-style home, that here can be moved to change the scene. Movement and dance and masks will echo Japanese styles. The band on an upper deck of the set will include a skilled player of the shamisen, a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument. And as for the marine creature in whose belly Pinocchio ends up . . .
“In the novel, the whale is not a whale, it’s a dogfish. I don’t know how big a dogfish is, but the Disney version turned it into a whale,” Bogart says. “We did some research and found a character, Namazu, in Japanese mythology, which is a giant catfish. It’s so big, it’s controlled by a god, and when the god is not paying attention, Namazu creates earthquakes and tsunamis.”
Big enough, then, to swallow a puppet and puppetmaster. But this “Pinocchio” isn’t just about tradition. “We looked at Pinocchio and all of the temptations that pull him away from family, from Geppetto, that get him into trouble — and we looked at them as modern-day Tokyo,” Lement says.
Consider their Playland — known as The Land of Toys in the novel, Pleasure Island in the Disney film — where kids turn into donkeys because they’re playing all day. “We looked at what they would be playing all day long in Japan, so that years could go by in a sense, and Steve came up with the idea of pachinko” — a kind of vertical pinball game that originated in Japan.
“Japan is this amazing place of the old and new living together,” Bogart says. “Modern Japan is all this crazy, city, neon, fast-paced life, but then there are these gorgeous pagodas and temples that crop up everywhere,” and that mix is what they’re trying to capture.
The cast includes 17-year-old Sirena Abalian as Pinocchio and veteran Boston actor Steven Barkhimer as Geppetto, with music composed and conducted by Mary Bichner and sets by Cristina Todesco.
Abalian starred in Wheelock’s 2013 production of “Pippi Longstocking,” and Lement says she brings high energy and comic timing to the role of Pinocchio. Many actors, including boys, auditioned for the part, but Bogart and Lement kept coming back to Abalian. (The actress is a Lexington student, but she and Bogart never overlapped there.)
Bogart and Lement collaborated on the script. “Steve would come to me occasionally and say, ‘Is this too weird?’ And I’d say, ‘No, I love it.’ And then I’d go to him and say, ‘Is this too out there?’ And he’d say, ‘No!’ We’re sort of on the same page.”
They moved away from Disney moods to get at the underlying ideas of Collodi’s novel, which also fit well with the Japanese motif, such as the Blue Fairy that crops up in various guises throughout the show and serves as Pinocchio’s conscience. That doesn’t mean their version isn’t animated in its own way.
Lement: “The Blue Fairy is Geppetto’s wife who has died at the beginning. He is mourning her loss in front of a tree at her grave — the tree is there, and she is the tree. He’s feeling sorry for himself, and she takes a part of herself, a branch, and it goes flying into him, and she says, ‘Do something with your life!’ ”
Bogart: “He ignores that and the log starts jumping up and hitting him. ‘Do something!’ And it becomes Pinocchio’s voice, and he makes Pinocchio out of that log.”
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.