Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Cat in the Hat: Wanting to Keep the Magic Alive

Do we need to understand everything? Why can’t children be allowed to wonder anymore?

I've an urge to write this in some sort of rhyme, but I haven’t the knack and I haven’t the time, I do want to say that the Cat in the Hat is an adorable show even if you don’t have a grandkid in tow. The kids were appropriately shocked and amazed, and the Cat was an acrobat who left us all dazed.

There’s a moment in The Cat in the Hat at the Arden Theater when the Cat (Doug Hara) stands precariously on a big yellow ball balancing, as in the book, a fish in a bowl on a rake and a book and a cup and a cake on his hat and a bowl full of milk and a kite in his tail and whatever else Dr. Seuss has listed in his popular children’s book.

It’s one thing to see a picture in a book, another to watch an actual person propel himself around the stage on what seemed to be a large exercise ball.  It was a truly remarkable feat, and we, myself along with all the children in the audience, held our collective breath waiting for something or everything to fall—while the young man next to me kept saying, “Oh, my,” and “My gosh”—until it all came crashing down—only not before our eyes. Just a lot of clattering and shuddering and shocked expressions.

And that was the fun of the piece. Part of going to the theater is the magic—not knowing quite how they’re doing what they do. It’s not the same as the movies, where we know that a bunch of experts worked with technology to create what are called “special effects.” The magic happens elsewhere in the movies. In the theater it all has to happen right in front of us leaving us wondering and amazed.

But what happens when that wonder is explained away? Does it diminish the effect and take away the magic when we know that it’s merely a trick?

Magicians pledge not to tell people how they create their illusions. Why can’t children be allowed to live with mystery—to know that not everything needs to be explained away? Yes, we can google almost everything. We can find instant answers to many of our questions, but sometimes we just have to allow ourselves to wonder, how did they do that? And let the wonder be its own answer.

After the performance of The Cat in the Hat at the Arden—I was the only adult there that evening without a kid or grandkid along to justify my attendance—the performers came out to talk to the audience and answer questions. Usual I enjoy the after show discussion, I always learn something new about the play I’ve just seen, but in this case, I got too much information.

The Cat, it turns out, was just a man. Although Hara stayed in costume, he was no longer the Cat, he was someone who had played the Cat. Why, I wondered, couldn't the kids go home with their black-painted noses and the whiskers that covered their cheeks and say to themselves,” Oh my, how did the Cat balance on that ball with a cake on his hat?”

Part of the role of the theater is to delight and amaze or to provoke and engage. But I don’t think it’s the role of theater to answer all my questions. An artist, a playwright, a dancer wouldn't explain our experience of his art by telling us exactly what he meant. What the artist intended and what we experience can be two separate things. Why do we always have to know?

I was educated in questions. The University of Chicago under Robert Maynard Hutchins was all about questions. If you know the question, I was taught, you can find the answers, especially in today’s google-fied world. If you have a question, you can discuss the possible answers. Questions are freeing.

We don’t think about answers, we ponder questions—usually about the meaning of things. In the case of The Cat in the Hat, the show ends with a question—what would you do if you had misbehaved while your parents were out, and they asked you what had happened while they were gone? “Tell the truth, of course,” the child next to me answered dutifully.  But would he? Would I?

Maybe, yes, but not necessarily, “of course.” Perhaps it is asking too much of truth to bear the burden of our questions.

What did the kids learn from watching The Cat in the Hat? Did they learn that an unruly Cat in the house can cause far more damage than you could ever imagine. Did they discover that misbehaving can be fun if there are no consequences? Did they remember that maybe being responsible and grown up means making hard choices?

Or would they go home and try to balance on a ball, beg for clown lessons, or just curl up with a book on a rainy day and live vicariously through the adventures of a boy and girl and Cat in a Hat?

Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, based on the book by DR. SEUSS, directed by DOUG HARA and STEVE PACEK. Play originally produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain, adapted and originally directed by Katie Mitchell. April 16 – June 29, 2014 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. (215) 922-1122 or

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