Is the Cat in the Hat a merry prankster to be welcomed with open arms? Or a suspicious, manipulative feline to fear? If you go by how Dr. Seuss drew the character – bright-eyed, perky smile, peppy eyebrows – the first interpretation is pretty easy to embrace. But if you pay close attention to the text of the famous story, which details Mr. Cat’s chaotic descent upon a home momentarily unshielded by parental protection, the darker version can take hold.
At least that’s according to the recollections of my 5-year-old self, who if not traumatized by the Cat in the Hat was quite wary of him. So Mom isn’t home, and this unannounced visitor wants to thrash the living room, balance my poor fish’s bowl on the tip of an umbrella and introduce two (quite possibly un-potty-trained) strange Things into the mix? Sorry, rule-following me had some issues, among them being: What about not talking to strangers?
One reason why Fresno City College’s brisk new production of “The Cat in the Hat” tickled me so much is guest artist Adam Meredith’s vision for the title role. He plays it with a decidedly ambivalent edge. One moment the Cat is a great big wallop of good-natured fun, not a trace of darkness to be found. The next he is shrewd, calculating and perhaps even menacing, like some guy who’s eventually going to end up on a “Dateline NBC” special.
There are times in the story when I don’t even think the Cat knows his true intentions, and Meredith (a Buchanan High School graduate who has worked with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and the Goodman Theatre) is superb at being a little confused in the moment himself.
The play (first produced by the National Theatre in London) is fast-paced and clever, and all talk of psychological shadings aside, it’s first and foremost a children’s outing. The running time is only 45 minutes, perfect for young attention spans. Director Janine Christl knows her audience (there were lots of kids at the Sunday matinee), and has opted for a visually stimulating romp complete with gymnastics, aerial dancing and a happy assortment of sight gags. I’m especially enamored of the Cat’s big balancing trick, which includes three books, the aforementioned fish bowl, a cup on his hat and a rake, all the while standing on a ball. That’s a breezy bit to describe on the page, but achieving it on the stage is another thing altogether. The slow-mo deconstruction of the scene is a high point.
Phillip Gallegos’ warped-perspective set pieces are all you’d expect from a Seuss outing (and his lighting design is bright and fun) and Debra Erven’s costumes merry (but not over-the-top). Hard-working sound coordinator Jeff Barrett, along with assistants Kaderina Guizar and Richie Harrison, are busy with the myriad of cues in this charmingly sound-heavy show.
The cast is limber and well-prepared, with charming performances from Quincy Maxwell (the Boy), Hattie D. Faccinto (Sally) and Andrew Pereida (a charmingly grumpy Fish). The two Things (Regina Godbout and Shira Goedon) have fun wreaking havoc. Guest choreographer Amy Querin of NOCO/Fresno Dance Collective fame jazzes things up with her usual aerial flair.
And then there’s Cat, his red-striped tower of a hat regally perched on his head like some extravagant bishop’s miter, egging on the near-destruction of the household even as he claims it can be hurriedly cleaned up. Can he be trusted this time? Perhaps. But to this day, I remain leery of extravagant claims by smooth-talking (not to mention rhyming) cats.
Now if we were talking about a Dog in a Hat? That’s a different story. I’m a dog person. Bring on the destruction.