by Margret Echeverria
One Christmas when my nephew was just about a year old, one of his other aunties, a child psychiatrist, gave him a round plastic laundry basket filled with balls ranging in size from far larger than his mouth to just a bit larger than his head. The kid thought this was the finest gift in all the land and was entertained for hours upon hours. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, created by Jonathan Rockefeller and based on books by Eric Carle might just be this kind of gift in that, to us older kids it’s the dullest collection of simpleness ever, but to tiny tikes, it’s pretty swell.
First, this show promises seventy-five magical puppets. For a big kid raised on Jim Henson, Avenue Q and Whiz Bang, you’re gonna be way disappointed, because most of what you will see are props on sticks manipulated by three actors who are, bless them, working their sweet little hearts out! There are some hing-y manually manipulated marionettes, like Brown Bear Brown Bear, operated in the first narrative by two actors who I cannot find named anywhere. This bear is so big and the stage is so small, that I got lost in the awkwardness of the action especially as the actors and the marionette were climbing stairs too narrow for three entities. But, the two-year old behind me was eating it up!
Much to the very young audiences delight, there were doors in the set that would spontaneously open to reveal Blue Horse, Polar Bear – who was seemingly so much smaller than Brown Bear Brown Bear . . . what??! – and various other critters. The prop-on-stick “puppets” are, most of them, very colorful and the actors move them about the stage doing their best to imitate expressive styles unique to each animal and only once bumping into one another. My thirteen year old daughter was bored out of her mind by these, but the colors and choreography were mesmerizing to anyone a year old to about four.
The narratives do not deviate much at all from the four Carle stories, Brown Bear Brown Bear, The Very Lonely Firefly, 10 Little Rubber Ducks and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The books are being recited to us coupled with simple visuals. There is no bone thrown to the adults present at all, which is a sure fire way to produce a hit, but maybe Rockefeller didn’t have us – or even hits – in mind here. Honestly, the ducks irritated me the most.
They were literally rubber ducks, grouped into pairs and glued onto thick dowels. The ducks didn’t light up like the fireflies on sticks and they weren’t brilliantly painted like Red Bird on a stick or even White Dog, the beautifully painted hinged marionette. And Polar Bear was not the only disappointment in proportion; the Very Hungry Caterpillar gets so fat and gets inside such a huge cocoon, that I groaned audibly when the butterfly he became – wings on dowels too thin to keep the fabric from flopping over – was so surprisingly small. I wanted something that took up the whole stage with color and sparkle. But you know what? Overpowering my groan, were the contented sighs of happy children when that butterfly emerged.
So, what the hell do I know about children’s theater except what Noel Rennerfeldt taught me when I was rattling around my BFA program in the ’90’s? As I look around the DR2 Theatre, the kids are enjoying themselves. My daughter leans over and says, “Hey, the face in that moon is pretty kewl!” Parents are sitting in velvet seats and resting their dogs for 50 full minutes. These are good things, right? It’s not about the adults, Kids; it’s about the kids.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show created by Jonathan Rockefeller; based on Eric Carle’s books.
DR2 Theatre at Union Square, 103 East 15th St, visit the box office or call 1-800-982-2787 for tickets. Thursday through Sunday (Thursday at 10am; Friday at 10am & 12pm; Saturday at 10am, 12pm, 2pm & 4pm; Sunday 10pm & 12pm) through February 4th.