Something different is happening at the Coterie theater. It’s called “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat,” and it’s the closest thing to abstract theater I’ve ever seen at the venerable young-audiences company.
This production is based on an adaptation by Katie Mitchell, who directed it for Britain’s National Theatre. Her stated goal was to bring each page of the book to life as a distinct scene, which she evidently accomplished with sparse but elegantly rendered scenery and imaginative, actor-driven stage effects.
The result is less a story than an experience. Boy (Donovan Woods) and Sally (Deanna Mazdra) are left at home on a rainy day by their mom. They’re bored, but that changes with the arrival of the Cat (Jake Walker), who initiates a day of sheer anarchy, aided by two whirlwind playmates identified only as Thing 1 (Tony Pulford) and Thing 2 (Pancha Brown).
Observing all of this and sometimes getting caught up in the action is the perpetually alarmed Fish (played by a nattily attired Damian Blake with a hand puppet). That’s hardly a complex narrative, even for a show that runs only about 60 minutes, but director Heidi Van finds inventive ways to fill the stage with movement and visual jokes.
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Van’s clown training serves her well in this show, which demands maximum physical energy from the actors. Nevertheless, they must deliver disciplined performances. Now and then that discipline wavers and at times the onstage anarchy seems a bit too, well, anarchic. But by the final curtain, viewers should appreciate the fact that Van and her actors have pulled them into a unique, trippy experience.
As I watched the opening-night performance Friday, the organized chaos brought to mind the Cat in the Hat ride at Universal’s Island of Adventure in Orlando, a manic evocation of the story with state-of-the-art animatronics that I took in a few years back. Van, with her comparatively limited budget, takes a similar approach. The idea is to allow no dead space, to fill every nook and cranny with sound, light and color.
The actors are appealing, but the heart of the show, understandably, is Walker, whose Cat is a sort of casual instigator, a relaxed but mischievous presence. Walker sustains a perpetual gleam in his eye, and it’s a quality that works beautifully for this show. His version of the Cat seems to always be plotting two steps ahead, mentally preparing for the next antic explosion of physical comedy.
In short, he delivers a singular physical performance that creates indelible images in your mind’s eye.
Georgianna Londre Buchanan’s wild costumes add to the sense of uncontrolled glee, as does Art Kent’s lighting. Scott Hobart adapted the Childsplay scenic design for the Coterie stage. Sound effects and background music are important to the effectiveness of this show, and sound designer David Kiehl created what amounts to an aural painting with 218 specific sound cues.
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“Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat” runs through May 17 at the Coterie in Crown Center. More information at 816-474-6552 or thecoterie.org.