Renee Philippi joins puppetry, mythology, and bioengineering in a world premiere solo show at SoHo Playhouse.
Pay no mind to the misleadingly pithy title. Very little of the sharp wordsmithing sensibilities implied by the alliterative Extraordinary Extremities makes it into the production itself, now running at SoHo Playhouse. Notorious puppeteer Geppetto finds himself in the organic, handcrafted environment in which we would expect to find him — though Pinocchio is nowhere to be found — and the broken English muttered by the lonesome Italian woodcarver (written by Renee Philippi, who also directs) borrows the simplicity of the tale from which his character has been transplanted.
Solo performer Carlo Adinolfi has designed his own dwelling space — a workshop centered around a cluttered table, surrounded by walls of posters boasting "Geppetto and Donna's Mythic Puppet Company." A solemn Geppetto wanders alone into his temple of craftsmanship, accompanied by onstage cellist Alon Bisk who musically narrates the story through composer Lewis Flinn's warm underscore.
We meet this iconic literary character on the heels of his wife's death, the reality of which becomes all the more striking as he prepares for a performance of his signature show without her for the first time. Surrounded by visual reminders of her absence, Geppetto attempts his first mythic tale — the heroic story of Perseus, who rescues the helpless Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. But maneuvering three puppets, a flock of seagulls, and a churning ocean proves too much for the now-solo performer. He tumbles over, taking out the entire production, and breaking the wooden legs of his "leading man" in the process. As Geppetto charges on, searching for a story he is capable of telling without his late wife, his injured puppet becomes the proud owner of increasingly elaborate prosthetic limbs. Yet, each pair seems to fall just short of their intended mythic feats. Each story Geppetto's puppet protégé reenacts centers around rescuing his female counterpart — a puppet that proceeds to play mythological damsels in distress Helen of Troy and Eurydice in their respective fables.
Quickly it becomes evident that Geppetto is acting out his desire to rescue his deceased wife from her already-sealed fate through his fantasy world of malleable subjects. The parallels between the mythic stories and his own experiences, though occasionally poignant, go as deep as the simple recognition of their presence. Beyond acknowledging the metaphor, there is little in Philippi's script that takes us further into the nuances of Geppetto's personal experience with grief. Adinolfi capably communicates his character's growing desperation, expressing a quiet helplessness and isolation, further emphasized by the nearly barren stage. However, much of this emotional turmoil is transmitted — and consequently diluted — through his heroic male puppet, who serves as the primary conduit for his feelings of longing.
The beauty of myths lies in their ability to concentrate broad and sweeping themes in a simple yet fully expressive tale. Extraordinary Extremities, unfortunately, has used the simplicity of these stories to unpack their emotional density. Philippi attempts to enhance the performance with the added throughline of the puppet's ever-changing set of legs — the element (listed in the production notes as being inspired by the story of double amputee Hugh Herr) that lends the piece its name. However, the gap between this motif and Geppetto's gradual journey toward acceptance of his wife's passing is never quite bridged, leaving behind what feels like two nascent concepts that have yet to find sturdy legs of their own to carry the piece to its intended realm of divinity.