You may not recognize the name Eric Carle, but you’ll probably recognize his distinctive collage art. He hand paints sheet after sheet of tissue paper with bold acrylics. He cuts them in simple shapes and carefully layers them to form, most famously, a Very Hungry Caterpillar on the cover of one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. Bethesda’s Imagination Stage now hosts a living manifestation of Carle’s unique visual style, in the aptly named The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show.
But can a theatrical version of such a simple yet distinctive picture book be wholly true to the source material, even through the eyes of children, who are some of theater’s most discerning critics?
“IT’S THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR!” screamed the Shark (my toddler, who measures 2.75 years on the age scale and 8.75 on the Richter scale) when the puppet representation of the title character emerged from its egg. So…yes, I’d say that show creator Jonathan Rockefeller and the creative team at Imagination Stage were effective in portraying the source material.
Not only the titular story, but 3 other Carle works as well—Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?; 10 Little Rubber Ducks; and The Very Lonely Firefly— are rendered in 4 dimensions by numerous puppets, more than 75 by Imagination’s count. These puppets are gorgeous and the stars of the show: straight out of the book and straight out of Jonathan Rockefeller’s proprietary, artisanal shop.
But puppets need puppeteers, and for that director Rafael Untalan has turned to some local talent. Alex Vernon, of the amazing Alex & Olmsted, directs movement and puppets here, helping the three-handed cast bring Rockefeller’s creations to life.
He and the cast have a remarkably difficult job. Given the time constraints of regional theater rehearsal, the cast might need to master a single puppet in a day, a practice that can take years. Some of these puppets have 3, 4, or, in the case of the intensely finicky firefly swarm puppets, 5 articulation points. Can you imagine trying to coordinate 5 different points in physical space while remembering lines and movement and keeping in close emotional and physical connection with two other performers who are also trying to do the same thing?
A monumental task to be sure, and one that, amazingly, these performers mostly nail. Alex Turner finds a fun affinity with the Very Hungry Caterpillar itself, especially with the medium stage version (there are 3 caterpillar puppets that represent different growth stages) as it literally grows in his hands. Daniel Glenn Westbrook has a close relationship with the titular character in the Brown Bear scene, finding a way to make a giant inflatable bear lumber. Emily Whitworth does well with marotte style puppets, controlled only by a single rod, which are some of the most difficult to get right. But the enormous workload does lead to some mistakes when we were there: the actor winding up on the wrong side of the puppet (that is, between the puppet and the audience), some “good enough” movement that extra concentration might have made more lifelike, the same puppet being manipulated differently by different actors, or lack of precision in focus points, that is, where the puppet is “looking.”
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show closes October 27, 2019. Details and tickets
The storytelling presents an opposite, yet equal challenge. The script rigidly adheres to the text of the books. To give a picture, The Very Hungry Caterpillar only has 224 words in the entire book. This review will wind up having more words than the entire show. So how can this cast and this director stretch these over an hour? As you might suspect, the pace is rather languid. But this slowness seems both intentional and, perhaps most surprisingly, fairly effective. After the first few minutes of the show, where the simplest of the tales, Brown Bear, is told at a leisurely pace, I was worried that the Shark would lose patience quickly, and we would wind up in the half-human-straightjacket, half-protective-hug so familiar to parents who frequent the theater with boisterous little ones.
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But I didn’t have to worry, and that was thanks to the design of the show. Not just the starring puppets, but effectively executed light, set, and sound design that gave the puppets vivid context. Set designer April Joy (Vester) Bastian and lighting designer Jason Arnold worked together seamlessly. Bastian’s highly textured but essentially monochromatic set (which reminds me of Heidi Bucher’s abstract latex and textile sculptures) provided a dynamic canvas for Arnold’s lights. His use of color cleverly complements, rather than mimics, Carle’s and Rockefeller’s artistry. Robert Pike’s sound provides sorely needed dynamism for the show, something that the Shark responded to instinctively, shifting her attention as the music changed.
The direction and acting behind the puppeteering only rarely provided that kind of dynamics, though it may be a high bar to ask for such a basic set of stories. As an adult watching a young audiences show, I wished for more emotional texture through vocal and facial characterization from the cast, though the seeds of that exist in the show as is. Turner has particularly found some good angles into embodying the lines, but, again, this work is harder than it might seem. The actor’s fundamental tool in characterization is usually the text, but that provides little guidance here.
But these are ancillary, perhaps even perfectionist, concerns. What really matters here is the young audiences that this play is made for, and the wild excitement at the carefully and expertly drawn audience interaction. The other evidence of this show’s effectiveness was the Shark’s awe, excitement, and investment for the 45 minutes, and that’s a relief I rarely get to experience.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is beloved childhood art come to life, and maybe you’ll get to experience some of that relief for yourself, or, even better, some of that childhood excitement, too.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Created by Jonathan Rockefeller. Based on Eric Carle’s books. Directed by Rafael Untalan. Artistic Production by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Featuring Emily Whitworth, Alex Turner, and Daniel Glenn Westbrook. Movement and Puppetry Direction by Alex Vernon. Set Design by April Joy (Vester) Bastian. Sound Design by Robert Pike. Stage Management by Thomas Nagata. Produced by Imagination stage. Reviewed by Alan Katz.