‘Caterpillar’: No play, lots of play

So what if there's no plot? Oregon Children's Theatre's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show" is a delight (painter and puppets included)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at Oregon Children’s Theatre is tough for an adult to review fairly. It’s for the very youngest OCT audiences, after all, and it can be difficult for a lifelong theatergoer to look at a show through that lens.

For starters, there is no plot. How does one critique a staged performance of an artist (Robi Arce, truly a delight) paining a blue horse (and a yellow cow and a purple fox, and others) to the joyful squeals of children?

And this isn’t really a “play” in the traditional sense: Instead, it’s five ensemble members (not playing characters, really) retelling/performing four beloved Eric Carle’s children’s books: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly, and of course, The Very Hungry Caterpillar that this show was inspired by and named for.

Painting animals (and puppets to match): He’s all ears. Photo: Owen Carey

So instead of trying to critique this as a traditional play, let’s look at what it is and what it’s trying to accomplish: This is a show filled with colors and puppetry trying to entertain children. And, by those measures, it is a resounding success.

The ensemble is fantastic. Arce is the first to enchant audiences as the artist painting all of those magical pictures. He is joined by Robert Amico, Allie Menzimer, Summer Olsson, and Bryan Smith – each one a storyteller, actor, and puppeteer.

The adaptations of those four books are incredible. Did anyone actually think The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse could be adapted for the stage? If you have read it thousands of times, you might think that nothing really happens in the book. On the stage, this is still true, but there is action as the artist paints – it’s a mystery what animal he will choose for each color (unless, again, you’ve read the book a thousand times, though it’s still fun to hear the audience guessing) – and then the animals come alive as puppets on the stage. The other adaptations are equally fine, ending with the story we all know and love, which truly becomes something more with these magnificent puppets and storytellers.

Down in the sea where the seahorses swim. Photo: Owen Carey

And those puppets — designed by Puppet Kitchen for the original creation of this show by Jonathan Rockefeller at Rockefeller Productions — are amazing. They are huge, colorful, and sensational – everything you would want an Eric Carle book to come alive as. And the puppeteers do tremendous things with them: helping a big yellow cow lumber across the stage; crawling a caterpillar across the other puppeteers; flitting fireflies through the sky and seahorses through the sea. It is also wonderful to actually see the puppeteers instead of trying to hide them. This does wonders for children’s imaginations and beliefs in what a puppet is and can do.

Finally, there is the superb and versatile scenic design in the Winningstad Theatre. Without many changes from story to story, Morgan A. Yeates’ set transfers from a blank canvas to beneath the ocean to the night sky that leads us from a lonely firefly to a caterpillar waking up in search of food. These transitions from story to story are helped in a major way by the terrific lighting design of Don Crossley and James Mapes. One of my three daughters loved the lights more than almost anything else at this show, and with good reason: They brought more color, helped the sea seem more like water, and gave just the right glow to the firefly’s lonely night.

Even if you have read Carle’s books as much as many parents, you will find something enchanting about watching them come alive in the Winningstad. More importantly, so will your little ones. But go soon, because if my kids (who are 4 and 5) are any indication, yours will want to see this again.

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Oregon Children’s Theatre’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show continues through May 20 in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

Polka dots and possibilities. Photo: Owen Carey

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