It was a type of morning that many parents of small children are familiar with: a morning full of questions. The Shark (my ever-moving, ever-hunting, and ever-curious almost-3 year old) was delivering lots of “What is that person doing?” and, of course, many versions of “Why?” but the most pressing questions last Saturday morning were “What’s Squeakers?” and “What’s Gumdrop?” That’s because we had been waiting in anticipation for Arts on the Horizon’s new play for the Very Young (defined here as ages 1-5), Squeakers & Mr. Gumdrop.
Arts on the Horizon generally, and Squeakers & Mr. Gumdrop in particular, has quite a bit to offer the Very Young. “Where do we sit?” was the Shark’s first question on entering the space, and Arts on the Horizon wisely has a space for floor seating for certain toddlers who want to be as close to the action as possible, but also chairs in the back of the house if the ticket-buying guardian needs a real seat or in case of extreme meltdown. It’s none of it fancy, just a big activity room with a set of flats depicting a wintry outside view of a house that open up to a festive interior.
This house belongs to Mr. Gumdrop, a jolly old individual who is given delightful cheer by actor Tori Boutin, and they are preparing a holiday party. Squeakers, on the other hand, is a mouse or a rat or a human with rodentine characteristics (as Theater for the Very Young is most often both wordless and plot-driven, details like this get lost) who gets itself inside in a kind of Goldilocks situation by sneaking into Gumdrop’s house and fooling around. “Why he not knock?!?” was the Shark’s plaintive cry. The only difference is that when Mr. Gumdrop discovers Squeakers, instead of Squeakers running away or apologizing to Mr. Gumdrop (the Shark gets somewhat more moralistic versions of traditional tales), they have all kinds of holiday fun together— from decorating to cookie baking to ice skating.
Squeakers & Mr. Gumdrop closes December 21, 2019. Details and tickets
Like many plays in Theater for the Very Young, Squeakers & Mr. Gumdrop is a farce, meaning that the focus is on physical comedy with plenty of wholesome hijinks and good-natured confusion that fits well with the target audience. Creative team Natalie Cutcher and Amanda Forstrom have cast some excellent folks to execute that vision. Tori Boutin as Mr. Gumdrop is a consistent delight onstage with a loud face and consistent physicality that draws the attention of the little ones. Dylan J. Fleming as Squeakers exudes an infectious ebullience that is quite familiar for the parent of an excited toddler.
Speaking of, “What are they doing?” was one of the Shark’s most frequent questions during the show, all of which, by the way, she asked at full volume (props to the actors maintaining their concentration). One might think that this was a negative, that she wasn’t comprehending the action on stage. But it was actually the opposite— the farcical movements inspired curiosity and involvement in the production. Indifference is the enemy of enjoyment in both adults and toddlers, and her interest speaks highly of the blocking from the co-directors.
Just as key to her passion for the play was the music. Tess Higgins playing the keyboard, full of wonderous sound effects as well as music, was the glue that held this production together. In many cases, I would tell the Shark to listen to the music and ask her what it sounded like when she asked what the characters were doing. “Dancing!” was often the answer, whether the characters were ice skating or mirroring each other’s movements or, in fact, dancing.
One aspect of Theater for the Very Young that was missing in this play, at least for the Shark, was audience interaction. She has come to expect some interplay between her and the characters or a close-in sensory stimulation that would draw a contrast to the passive act of watching the play. As an adult, I understand its lack since the play is only a half an hour long and the farcical nature of the work requires a certain delicacy with props that reacts poorly with grabby and often sticky toddler mitts. Her main complaint was that she wasn’t able to bake cookies with the characters. Understandable from her perspective, but also I wouldn’t put the Shark near anything as fragile as the prop oven used in the play.
The questions continued all up to naptime (Arts on the Horizon is very good at scheduling their plays at the most convenient pre-nap slots), which is a great compliment for this delightful holiday romp. As a parent, I loved Squeakers & Mr. Gumdrop because I got to take my child to a holiday show built for her, whereas a trip to something like The Nutcracker or Christmas Carol would only end in bored tears. As a reviewer, I get to ask a question of my own, “Is this play worth going to?” And fortunately, the answer is an absolute “Yes!”
Squeakers & Mr. Gumdrop. Written and directed by Natalie Cutcher and Amanda Forstrom. Featuring Tori Boutin, Dylan J. Fleming, and Tess Higgins. Set Design by Willow Watson. Costume Design by Julie Cray Leong. Lighting Design by Stephen Indrisano. Produced by Art on the Horizon. Reviewed by Alan Katz.