Originally published on Medium, January 13, 2016
When I was six years old we took a field trip to see the play version of “Pinocchio”, a story about a little Italian prick making hell for everyone by disrupting the flow of capital for several older men who tried to make a comfortable living on opposite sides of the wood industry.
The movie version always occupied the side of my mind where I filed away things that were frightening or made me feel in a negative way. When I was three, I saw it and I was mortified that a child could get lost from his parents. That was a recurring fear of mine as a child and watching kids turn into donkeys and get sold into slavery was beyond my comprehension (good thing I didn’t have access to The Guardian).
We were told we were going to see the play version and I was excited to be getting a break from school. I hated school. I would go there and count down the minutes until I started to feel the psychic pangs of a coming conniption. I had time to think about the next public space I could get nervous in, I could be nervous the whole time, and I could ride back and pray that this wasn’t a trick and they were going to hold us over an extra hour or two for funsies.
We filed in and I got separated from my best friend in that grade, in spite of our matching Men in Black ID cards that proved we worked together (he was J and I was K), not fathoming the fact that two years later I would be separated from him for an entire year, and then gradually, more and more, until we didn’t talk at all.
I sat in my seat and I watched, with glee and mirth and terror, as I tried to bask in the rich colors that the stage was painted into, but still shoddy and unwelcoming like a European children’s book should. Around every corner was potential danger, and when there was danger in a certain corner of the stage, I no longer trusted it and kept circling my eyes on every spot the rest of the play.
There was a line in the play about Pinocchio being in school the rest of his life, the same thing my dad used to tell me against my mom’s reassurances that people get a bachelor’s degree and call it a day. I about had a fit. I sank down in my chair, nearly afraid to look. But look I did, and when the whale finally ate the little Italian book and his pet insect, I was awash in garish lights and unsettling structures made of bone, like Callaghan’s Little Book of Morals come to life in front of me. I began to panic that this was some sort of neo-surrealist theater of cruelty and the director actually wanted to feed a theater of children to an avant-sea animal. This was the best and worst thing I’d ever experienced!
I wonder now if the play was as grotesquely modernist as I remember it or if it had slightly higher production values than the opening skit of your local Vacation Bible School (VBS, you know the one). Regardless of the particulars, I still remember the effect on me, that cross-point of joy and nausea, the same feeling I‘m seeking whenever I pull out my earplugs during a Swans show or get as close as I can to a wax figure. It’s funny the first highs we’re still chasing.
Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_avventure_di_Pinocchio-pag125.jpg