What should have been a joyous occasion, the opening of another production at the Puppet Co., was tinged with sorrow.
Len Piper, creator of the current production of “Pinocchio” and its first Gepetto, passed away at age 90 on Oct. 4. He was the father of Christopher Piper, the co-founder, president and artistic director of the Puppet Co, who has inherited his father’s profession and his puppets, though the latter needed some repair and new costumes over the years.
“All the puppets in Len Piper’s Pinocchio are life-size marionettes,” said Christopher Piper. “So Pinocchio’s puppet is the size of a seven-year-old boy.”
Len Piper designed the Pinocchio puppets and developed the production many years ago when the family was living in Hawaii. Among the special effects is an underwater scene, with projections and lights that create the illusion of puppets swimming in slow motion.
“The puppets were put into storage when my dad retired and moved to Florida,” said Christopher.
After repairing the puppets and providing them with new costumes, Puppet Co. presented his father’s “Pinocchio” for the first time 10 years ago. Now, the show will go on as Puppet Co. will present “Pinocchio” as their newest production for the season.
The performance is very muchlike the traditional story from the book by Carlo Collodi, first illustrated in 1880, Piper said. In addition to the Len Piper version, the Puppet Co. has presented its own, with rod puppets produced by Allan Stevens, co-founder and CEO of the theater.
“These two versions are different styles, and worth seeing,” said Christopher Piper said.
In his father’s, the Blue Fairy comes too late to help Pinocchio, whereas, in Stevens’, she has to intercede.
The Len Piper version allows his son to do things a little differently. Usually, Christopher Piper plays character parts. This time, he’s the star.
“The sacrificial act to save his father is really the heart of the story,” said Piper. “That’s why he becomes human. He also learns that actions have consequences.”
Other than this being his father’s take on Pinocchio, the younger Piper calls this very much the traditional story from the book.
Assisting Piper on this production were three new actor/puppeteers, Karen Shantz is playing the Blue Fairy and the Cat; Ian McEuen is the Cricket, the Fox, Lighthead and a donkey; and Kyle Donovan is playing Gepetto Brimstonski (the puppet master) and the Coachman. The latter are onstage roles, not puppets.
Donovan is performing at the Puppet Co. for the first time, as well as working with puppets for the first time.
“At first the task seemed daunting, but Allan and Christopher have made it a wonderful experience,” he said.
While he is also new to the Puppet Co., the very first performing McEuen ever did was puppeteering.
“As a young boy I would write, produce and perform my own marionette and puppet shows in my living room, for a riveted audience of my parents and our cats,” he laughed .“Fast forward to my debut with Washington National Opera, where I played a number of characters –one was a dog puppet – in the world premiere of Jeanine Tesori’s ‘The Lion, the Unicorn and Me.’”
Shantz participated in Puppet Co.’s production of “Snow White” last year but mostly played a person.
“The few times I did operate a puppet, they were very different from the ones we are using in ‘Pinocchio,’” Shantz said.
Working at Walt Disney World for a year, she “picked up a few tips and tricks here and there, but these are the most elaborate puppets I’ve ever worked on,” she said.
Len Piper’s “Pinocchio” will run Oct. 11-Nov. 22 at the Puppet Co. Playhouse, located at 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo. www.thepuppetco.org.