Two or three weeks ago, my daughter was finally patient enough to get all the way through Dr. Seuss’s book, The Cat in the Hat. A feat of patience and wit, to be sure, for someone who is two and a half and has earned the nickname The Shark through her need both to be constantly on the move and to devour all flesh in her path. When I told her that we were going to see people perform the story of the Cat in the Hat, I was met with a mix of excitement, skepticism, and a barrage of questions.
“Will the cat in the hat be there?” was the first, and it was a poser. I’ve made an internal commitment to myself, as a parent, to limit the number of times that I lie to my child (a fool’s errand, I know). So I answered, “Someone who is playing the role of the Cat in the Hat will be there.” But that got me thinking, “WILL the Cat in the Hat be there at the theater? At least in spirit? In a Santa Claus at the mall kind of way?”
This production does exude the madcap energy of its namesake, played by Louis E. Davis, one of the most versatile and delightful actors on DC stages. He romps as the Cat with high-pitched and high-strung energy that charms the kiddos, but what I most love about his portrayal is his control. He is never tempted by the frenetic; he’s deliberate yet loose, quick yet clear in a hard job that he makes look easy.
Adam Immerwahr’s direction is focused on maximizing Davis’s larger-than-life interpretation of the famous cat. From his oversized, dad-like cross trainers to the very open single-level proscenium set, the design points to the cat as a force of nature occupying an empty space, an agent of chaos bringing wildness to the void (not too dissimilar to a certain Shark I might mention…).
Fun touches show the Cat’s influence, most especially the footlights shaped like his hat. But the primary angle that emphasizes this wacky vision is the use of puppets. The Cat is the only literally life-sized character in the play. All the others (the children, the fish, the Things, and the Mother) are played by puppets manipulated by various blue-suited actors who blend in with the set. It’s a strong choice, and not necessarily a wrong one, but some gaps in execution keep the idea from reaching its full potential. The children in particular are more dolls than puppets, lacking points of articulation that leave the puppeteers moving arms and legs with their hands as opposed to with strings or sticks. That’s a pretty fine distinction, noticeable more by adults than children, but it does sap some of the magic, and leads to the sharks follow up question.
“Will it be scary?” asked the Shark. This question was more unexpected than the first. “It’s not meant to be scary,” I said. “They’re going to try to be silly. But if you get scared, I’ll be there for you.”
Perhaps I should have anticipated the question. After all, the story is one of a home invader, breaking into a house when the children’s mother is gone and refusing to leave while making a mess and releasing two hyper animals from evident captivity in a large, red, wooden box. In that frame, it certainly could be scary, and there were some scary moments in the production, at least for the Shark.
This production does a good job of engaging with the audience of kids; the Cat distributing glitter and Thing 1 and Thing 2 going through the audience to shake hands, which were scary in a good “I’m too shy to interact” and adventurous kind of way. A more negative example was one particular use of strobe during a scene where the Cat bites off more than he can chew and falls off of a ball. It was very scary and left many parents covering their little ones’ eyes.
The Cat in the Hat closes August 18, 2019. Details and tickets
That incident aside, the Shark reveled in the opportunity to explore potentially negative emotions in an exceptionally healthy way: anger at the Cat not leaving when asked, worry about the mess being caused, wild silliness at the Cat’s antics, and fear of consequences. Director Immerwahr does a fantastic job of balancing these emotions, and the cast of puppeteers each find different and indicative expressions for these moments, allowing the kids to access surrogates for themselves onstage in a situation where they might not be able to do so with puppets. Caroline Wolfson, who puppets the scolding Fish, is particularly strong in this department, with a knack for clarity that is an overarching need in Theater for Young Audiences.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of the production was the pacing. Slowing only during an odd dream sequence that isn’t in the book with a lopsided bubble effect, Immerwahr finds a way to keep the production bouncy by carefully practiced pausing and slow motion puppeteering that keeps the constant action from wearing on the nerves of the adults in the room.
The Shark sat in my lap the entire time, transfixed, and, for the first time ever in her short theater-going career, didn’t try to swim away during a scene break or hide from a production’s stimulation. She asked one more question on the ride home that’s an even bigger recommendation: “Can we go again tomorrow?”
The Cat in the Hat, originally produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain, adapted and originally directed by Katie Mitchell. Directed by Adam Immerwahr. Featuring Louis E. Davis, Ari Shapiro, Debora Crabbe, John Sygar, Jonathan Miot, and Caroline Wolfson. Set design by Matthew Buttrey and Andrea ‘Dre’ Moore . Props and Puppets Design by Andrea “Dre” Moore . Lighting Design by Alberto Segarra . Costume Design by Danielle Preston . Sound Design by Evan Cook and Adam Immerwahr . Produced by Adventure Theatre MTC. Reviewed by Alan Katz.