The Planet of Pinocchio
Vadim Rutkovsky | CoolConnections | 5 November 2019Original

Boris Yukhananov's diptych, Pinocchio. Forest and Pinocchio. Theatre are a system for world-building. In two evenings you see the birth and formation of a phantasmagorical universe.

Work on this production, based on Andrei Vishnevsky's play The Mad Angel Pinocchio, wherein Carlo Collodi's old tale was retold in a fantastic new way, took years. A mystery play, it premiered at the NET festival in November. Pinocchio first entered the repertoire of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre in December. This theatrical blockbuster has everything necessary to become a hit.

Fairy tale. Science fiction. Horror Comedy. Surrealistic poem. Odyssey through theatrical space. Alchemical session. Clownery. Mystery play.

Pinocchio embraces several popular and elite genres, it enchants with its beauty, captivates with its plot, and dazzles with “remakes” of classical drama. It teases, scoffs, and parodies the audience, pokes fun at directors, making no distinction between the great and the humorous. This is Boris Yukhananov's most spectacular and spectator-oriented experience: it has miracles, adventures, and a laser show. And it is a stumbling block for a reviewer.

Pinocchio is a separate planet with its own geography, atmosphere, and mythology; a world that took decades to create. The first meeting of Yukhananov, Vishnevsky and Pinocchio dates back to the early 1970s (and the performance, which lasts a total of about eight hours, includes no more than one third of the author's text, which is linked to here). But you must present your impressions of this new world in a more or less compact text so that, God forbid, people who read it won't break down around the 225th paragraph. Two weeks after the performance, I walked around, gathering my thoughts, talking to myself, imitating Pinocchio’s speeches in a slightly mechanical but playful voice, with sly musical notes that gave the mechanics a mischievous vibrancy. And even being under the strong influence of this wooden individual, for two weeks I did not dare to open a word document and begin to write.

Because writing a review of Pinocchio is practically impossible. You would not dare to review the Earth or Moon, would you?

Or, even, the Apennine Peninsula (where Pinocchio-one was born) or the Sea of Clarity (whose name is so suitable for a diptych). Maybe we'd be better off confining ourselves to the paragraph that begins this text; to remain on the level of announcement, a warm hearty recommendation for you to embark on your own journey as concocted by Yukhananov, without critical connectors.

You can, of course, describe the set design – at least the moving curtain that meets us on stage under fragments of columns and an alien skull of Pinocchio; all the incredible lighting (capable of conveying even the movement of a magic elevator inside a needle-like theatre); pregnant trees; and fireworks that don’t burn the actors – there aren't enough words for all of this. You can tell about the expert Alessio Nardin, brought in specially from the birthplace of commedia dell'arte, who rehearsed with the Russian actors: in the second part of the diptych, several great plays (which underwent certain changes – Don Juan, or the Mad Lotus, Oedipus Rex, or the Sphinx as a Child, Falstaff, or Shit-resistant) are retold using this language of movement. In order to note how Pinocchio's biography echoes that of the director, the newborn Pinocchio, a bundle of energy, escapes to the garden, as Yukhananov himself once escaped to his Garden.

You can report that the action is preceded by eight storytellers in gray camisoles; they impersonate writers who are not indifferent to the revival of dead matter (von Kleist, Edgar Allan Poe, Goethe and Mary Shelley). They are given the job of providing explanatory comments.

You might draw attention to the fact that Geppetto’s acquisition of an ABC book for Pinocchio is presented as a religious ritual, and the minerals on the cover of the folio - as in the play - turn into tefillin on stage.

You could admire the transformation of Vladimir Korenev - “Amphibian Man” (and protagonist of Yukhananov’s The Blue Bird) - into the amusing totalitarian Old Man. But this Pinocchio, and the enormous, light-hearted work that went into it, do not fit such a traditional close analysis.

I’m better off telling a story. On October 4, 1951, a 31-year-old African American named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in Baltimore. The cells that caused her death are still alive and are known by the first letters of her names as HeLa – in honor of their "mistress." It all happened thanks to the scientist George Gay, the head of a laboratory, where a fragment of Henrietta Lacks' tumor was sent for biological research. Gay discovered that the cells did not stop growing after a certain number of divisions, that is, they were programmed for immortality, and he used them to create a cell culture, which no molecular microbiological laboratory now can do without.

Henrietta Lacks is no more, but HeLa cells, as our microbiologists call them, are everywhere; in the golden years they even flew into space.

This story about the eternal life of an organism that has destroyed its involuntary carrier has fascinated me since my student days in the medical academy; Pinocchio reminded me of it in the very first scene – the birth of a hero from a pulsating tumor on a tree trunk.

Yes, when you talk about HeLa, you often hear the question of whether Henrietta could be cloned from the cells; I'm not sure, although in some sci-fi thriller a dark mirror double could be born from a tumor cell. The performance also reminded me of such fantastic assumptions because of the "cloning" that Yukhananov resorts to: he doubles every hero, so that Pinocchio is not born in the singular, they are born in the guise of actresses Maria Belyaeva and Svetlana Naidyonova.

(Korenev is alone as the Old Man, but for this hero a duplication was also invented – he is both the Old Man and an amphibian floating on a video screen).

The first evening of the diptych, Forest, is an act of creation; and the father, the carpenter Geppetto, is of course the Father, the Creator. In the finale of Forest, the duo of playful Pinocchios burn to a crisp, but death is not the end. Their revival leads them into Theatre, a narcotic and angelic world that does not exist thanks to, but rather, contrary to “nocturnal visitors” – the monster-spectators.

Both the enchanted forest and the enchanted theatre are filled with the noise of the carnival of birth and metamorphosis. And the endless fission of "evil" cells may be a power that works good. And there is no end to this journey – just as there is no end to the play, which ends on a halfword, accompanied by the sound of heavenly gold coins.