I knew going into parenthood that the gig was going to put me through some unexpected paces. Still, I don’t think anybody expects that it’s going to entail sitting in a massive auditorium watching a man dressed as a mouse slowly spit a mouthful of half-chewed marshmallows into the palm of a man dressed as a prepubescent boy. But that’s exactly where the latest Children’s Theatre Company production of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie put me, and it was rather a delight.
Attending this show was something of an experiment for me. My son had responded enthusiastically to the low-key, puppet-based charms of Tucker’s Robot at Open Eye the weekend before (Sidebar: I promise I won’t be turning Playlist into my personal daddyblog every time I take my son to see a show. I just thought this was some pertinent material.). Now I wanted to see how he’d react to something bigger, louder and higher budget.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is certainly all of those things, a two-man showcase for the manic physicality of Dean Holt’s Mouse and the blustering straight-man routine of Reed Sigmund’s Boy (both exceptional performances, incidentally) . Like the kids’ book on which it’s based, the play is a study in escalation, with minor developments and seemingly insignificant lines of dialogue rapidly snowballing into misunderstandings and frenetic anarchy. The Boy gives the Mouse a cookie, which leads to the Mouse requesting a glass of milk, which eventually leads to a stage blanketed with foodstuffs, paint smears and every bit of debris the props department could wrangle. It’s not a show for the slapstick-averse. Fortunately, most children I’ve met are pretty cool with slapstick.
I was a little concerned about my kid’s reaction, though. For reasons I don’t fully understand, his tastes in visual entertainment are gentle almost to a fault. Not only does he reject anything he deems “mean” or “scary,” he also generally eschews any show that’s too noisy or busy. For instance, he’s recently become a huge fan of the TV adaptations of Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Men books, but only the low-energy, soft-spoken British renderings. The American versions are “too loud” and “too crazy” for him. And don’t even get him started on his distaste for Spongebob Squarepants.
Yet somehow he was completely on board for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a show that comes as close to replicating the chaos of a Looney Tunes cartoon as anything I’ve seen on stage. When we watch TV shows featuring characters who are loud or over the top, I can see the discomfort building in the boy’s face until he inevitably asks me to turn it off. Between Sigmund’s exasperated shouting and Holt’s reckless contortions (seriously, it’s an impressive physical performance), I fully expected to feel a nervous hand grasp my elbow before long. Instead, I got excited bouncing, gales of laughter and a steady stream of 3-year-old “what” and “why” questions. The boy's only moment of consternation was a brief bout of fear when the Mouse got himself trapped atop a wobbly refrigerator, but that passed quickly.
So what made the difference? I think the live and in-person nature of theater plays a factor, coupled with the obvious artifice of this particular production. Watching one of his favorite cartoon characters in peril – Mr. Greedy being menaced by a giant, say – is traumatic because everything happening is very real within that character’s universe. The Mr. Greedy on the screen is the Mr. Greedy, plain and simple, and any danger visited upon him is upsetting. Sitting in the crowd at the Children’s Theatre, he was well aware that he was watching two grown men pretend to be a Mouse and a Boy. There’s an element of play involved that’s more overt than it is in his cartoons, or even in a puppet show like Tucker's Robot. It’s evident that the actors are only pretending to be these characters, so it’s easier for him to understand that they’re also only pretending to be angry or frightened or about to plummet from the top of a fridge. Ironically enough, the live setting makes things less real for him, which makes him more comfortable with pushing his limits.
I also think the physical space of the Children’s Theatre made a big difference. The Children’s Theatre auditorium is a much more structured affair than the laid-back, “c’mon in and take a seat” atmosphere of Open Eye Figure Theatre. On our way in, I prepped my son by telling him that this would be more like when we went to Timberwolves games, with assigned seats and a big room full of people. That seemed to be a useful comparison. Audience participation is one of his favorite elements of watching basketball – clapping along with the stadium soundtrack, howling while opponents shoot free throws, yelling “Ricky Rubio!” whenever something exciting happens on the court – and that carried through to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
It was a joy to watch him get caught up in the communal experience of a show. He clapped at the act breaks and laughed longer and louder than he usually would because the crowd around him was doing the same. I’m not sure he always understood what he was laughing at, but it hardly mattered. He was getting his first lesson in the joy of watching a show with an audience. That’s an undervalued parcel of knowledge in my book.
Lest I leave the impression that the boy’s takeaway from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie was purely slapstick-oriented, this morning he surprised me with a detailed recounting of Sigmund’s opening soliloquy about his mother’s oatmeal cookies. Apparently he was hooked right from the start. Of course, he then went into a giggling fit remembering the moment when the Boy got a bucket stuck on his head, because how do you not retain fond memories of a guy with a bucket on his head? That’s what theater is all about!