Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
The most successful children’s puppet show in New York history continues to delight children and their parents at the DR2 Theatre on East 15th Street and Park Avenue South. It’s no wonder that it’s such a winner since it’s based on one of the most beloved children’s series of books of all time by writer Eric Carle. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is perfectly paced and gently performed, with brilliantly colored puppets and a talented quartet of young puppeteers.
We say perfectly paced and gently performed because four of Carle’s stories are recited calmly and slowly, as if being read before bedtime. Hand gestures, animal voices, lighting techniques, and backdrops accentuate the stories about the Big Brown Bear with friends, the 10 Little Rubber Ducks lost at sea, the Very Lonely Firefly mistaking various night lights as family members, and the big finale: The Very Hungry Caterpillar himself munching through an eclectic mixture of food.
The puppets have been cleverly designed and move like the real things. The Big Brown Bear appears first, climbing slowly, lifelike, up four steps to the stage with the two handlers moving the puppet carefully and with precision. Even the oldest amongst us will be enthralled at the puppetry. The youngsters in the audience are mesmerized, they clap and laugh as new puppets take the stage. A few in the audience even brought their own copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar book, which debuted in 1969 and became an instant classic, selling 43 million copies worldwide. Once the caterpillar chomps its way through a selection of fruit, a pickle, a slice of pizza, ice cream, and the like, it curls up in its cocoon to emerge as a stunning butterfly.
When Carle was asked why he choose the word “cocoon” over the more scientifically correct, “chrysalis,” he responded with a story from his youth. “My caterpillar is very unusual. As you know caterpillars don’t eat lollipops and ice cream, so you won’t find my caterpillar in any field guides. But also, when I was a small boy, my father would say, ‘Eric, come out of your cocoon.’ He meant I should open up and be receptive to the world around me. For me, it would not sound right to say, ‘Come out of your chrysalis.’ And so poetry won over science!”
At about an hour long, the timing is just right for the pre-schooler set (though it’s advertised from ages three months up to 96), and at show’s end, the puppets make an appearance for photo ops and big waves from the crowd. Before the show begins, instructions are few: “stay in your seats, laugh and make noise as much as you want, and tell your grown up to put their cell phone away or they’ll get a time out.” If the child wants to linger in the lobby afterwards, there’s a souvenir table, and coloring station with artwork that’s not taken home tacked up on the walls.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar opened in New York in February 2016 and has been performed in Australia, New Zealand, London, with a limited run in Dubai. It’s been winning award after award including a Drama Desk Award, and Best International Performance (2017), with nominations for Best Family Show (2016), and Unique Theatrical Experience (2016).
Once the show is done, especially after hearing all the foods the caterpillar has gnawed through, you may find yourself very hungry, too.
Nibbler is an odd beast. By that I mean the play and the (we can surmise) titular character. The latter is a gangly green guy with a habit of popping up when people are at their most vulnerable, in flagrante delicto or enjoying some solo stimulation. (There are quite a few adult situations in this 90-minute play, not to mention an abundance of male nudity and some downright saucy—if sometimes hilariously purple—language. So ends the parental advisory.) The green beast shows up and promptly wreaks havoc on the group of recent high school graduates, bringing them forced enlightenment compliments of its mind-altering sexual predation. After encountering the creature, the quintet is changed irrevocably. It’s all very American Graffiti. But, you know, with an alien.
Matthew Lawler as Officer Dan, Rachel Franco as Tara
Nibbler was mostly written in in 2004, though almost all of the action takes place in the New Jersey pine barrens in 1992. The performers go above and beyond, considering the abundant nudity, the very mature scenes and the incredibly compromising positions with some creatively chosen props. And nearly all of them accompany moments of pained desperation, the symptoms of deep emotional damage, which the actors perform with admirable fervor. If you are the type for whom the human form brings blushes and giggles, this is not the play for you. For everyone else, it will likely touch some feelings and memories close to home—if not of yourself than probably of someone you knew when you were that age.
James Kautz is Adam, the de facto narrator. The story unwraps itself in flashback as he sorts through a box of mementos from the summer after high school graduation. His friends way back when are an eclectic mix: Elizabeth Lail is the blonde and secretly super-sexual Hayley, Matthew Lawler is local boy-turned-fuzz Officer Dan, Spencer Davis Milford is Matt, the über-Republican politician’s son, Rachel Franco is anxious overachiever with daddy issues, Tara, and Sean Patrick Monahan is Pete, the boy who secretly pines for his best friend, Adam.
James Kautz as Adam, Rachel Franco as Tara
A simple telling could be that sex changes things and makes people grow up. The creature, after all, is drawn to people in the throes of sexual excitement, and after this initial encounter those people are forever changed. Another telling could use the alien as symbolic of the college experience, something that’s scary at first but ultimately brings us wisdom and catalyzes change to help us become the people we are ‘meant’ to be. Or maybe it’s just about longing for what has passed, a simpler time before adult responsibilities and difficult choices made it impossible to keep on keeping on. Either way, the characters change in dramatic ways, ways that make them happier in the end because they have become comfortable with themselves, but also sadder for never being able to go back to how things were.
Elizabeth Lail as Hayley, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt
The whole thing is amusing, even if a little heavy-handed with the sterotypes. The one part that didn’t work, on multiple levels, was the musical number at the end, which does, in fact, sound as if it was written by a teenager trying to be deeper and more philosophical than they really have in them. Problems with mic balance and not entirely on-tune singing added to the effect, as did the brief pauses in between singing when the characters went back to their former selves, joking around in their favorite local diner hangout. It’s the kind of scene that may look good on paper but just doesn’t work in a live performance.
What it does well is point out how the political climate in 1992 had so many parallels to what is happening today. Not quite as extreme, mind, but certainly interesting. Playwright Ken Urban and director Benjamin Kamine have done good work with the set, props, and the 90s grunge feel, both the clothes and the attitude. The attention to detail is also so true to Southern New Jersey in the early-to mid-90s. From the clothes to the music to the diner snacks, it rings true. So visit the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Waverly, then maybe make your way over to MacDougal for some frites with gravy and cheese. Think about who you were, who you are, and enjoy the moment for what it is: the bridge between what was and what will be.
Photo credit: Russ Rowland Top: James Kautz as Adam, Elizabeth Lail as Hayley, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt, Sean Patrick Monahan as Pete, Rachel Franco as Tara
Nibbler Playing at The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 224 Waverly Place Through March 18, 2017
It bodes well for an evening’s theater when the audience spontaneously bursts into song, not once, but twice before the show even begins. But that’s what happened at Shady Pines Entertainment’s That Golden Girls Show! The crowd came ready to be entertained and they were unquestionably satisfied. The puppet parody — though arguably more of an homage with all the care that was clearly put into it — takes everything beloved about the classic ‘80s comedy and packs it into 90 witty minutes of sarcasm-laden shenanigans.
For the uninitiated: Sexpot Blanche owns a house in Miami that she shares with three housemates — dim-bulb Midwesterner Rose, tall and husky-voiced Dorothy, and Dorothy’s spunky Sicilian mother, Sophia. They’re an oddly matched group but somehow they manage to work out all of their diverse problems with friendly ribbing and a never-ending supply of cheesecake. For the purposes of this production, we also meet Dorothy’s no-good, two-timing, sleazy ex-husband, Stan, who has suddenly come into a small fortune but with a slightly problematic caveat.
That Golden Girls Show! is split into a series of vignettes, much like the sections between commercial breaks — complete with incidental music —that follow all of the characters through their disparate storylines. There’s a lot going on, but creator Jonathan Rockefeller has done a marvelous job of keeping it all cohesive and easy to follow, as well as pitch-perfect. It’s also brilliant how he has managed to keep every character’s “voice” intact; they would be instantly recognizable even if we couldn’t see Joel Gennari’s beautifully designed and constructed puppet stand-ins or the fabulously recreated sets courtesy of David Goldstein.
Actor Michael LaMasa was completely delightful in the role of Dorothy. He utterly captured her posture and vocal cadence, as did Emmanualle Zeesman in the role of the wisecracking Sophia. Cat Greenfield’s Blanche got the best over-the-low-cut-top “costume changes” as well as the most overtly physical gags, and Arlee Chadwick as Rose got the silliest alliterative lines (a complex discussion about vaguely Nordic-named appliances and delicacies was impressively free of tied tongues), but the Dorothy/Sophia dynamic really stood out among the group.
In a Playbill letter to the audience, Rockefeller muses that there’s no way to “truly do justice to the four wonderful performers who played the characters on the show,” but he did a fabulous job of it. The puppets are great in that they can go a little more “out there” than people could, but it’s a credit to the original creators that they made such lovable, timeless, inspiring (in their own way) characters that the team behind this show had such great material to work with. Their hearts were true, they gave us pals to cherish, and I’m confident that if you’re a fan of the original you’ll love what That Golden Girls Show! has to offer.
Photos by Russ Rowland
Top photo: Arlee Chadwick as Rose, Michael LaMasa as Dorothy Emmanuelle, Zeesman as Sophia and Cat Greenfield as Blanche