Theater preview: 'The Cat in the Hat' jumps off the page onto the SLAC stage

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30 2013 2:50 p.m. MST

It’s “the rhythm, the rhyme, the wit, the wisdom and the humor” that Penny Caywood finds most fascinating in “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.”

“Dr. Seuss stories are classics,” says the director of Salt Lake Acting Company’s adaptation of the beloved children’s book. “His imagination jumps off the page. I have always found his stories fun to read aloud.”

The author of 46 children’s books, Theodor Seuss Geisel is quite simply the most beloved children’s writer in the world. There can’t be many people, adults or children, who haven’t encountered the fantastical story of the mischievous feline who visits Sally and her brother one wet afternoon.

At its 1957 publication, “The Cat in the Hat” was immediately successful and reviewers praised it as an exciting alternative to traditional primers. “Beginning readers, and parents who have been helping them through the dreary activities of Dick and Jane and other primer characters, are due for a happy surprise,” wrote the New York Times Book Review.

The stage version was originally produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and adapted by Katie Mitchell. The SLAC production is the regional premiere of this acclaimed adaptation.

While the play is primarily targeted to younger audiences, the company's approach to children’s theater is no different than its objectives with other productions.

“We strive to illuminate stories to the highest quality whether the audience is age 2 or 92,” says executive producer Cynthia Fleming. “They are just as much work and rehearsals are taken very seriously. Children’s plays perhaps ask a little more of the actors in regard to work and energy — because once the play starts the action doesn’t stop until the end.”

“This theater company views its young audiences as intelligent, sensitive and multifaceted individuals, Caywood adds. “These young patrons are not just future audiences but the present audience who needs and demands theater that engages their heads and their hearts.”

The director believes the “rewards are much greater” with a children’s theater show. “There is nothing like sitting in the theater witnessing a full house of children undeniably approving my work and the work of the actors. Attempting to maintain their interest, inspire them, make them laugh, entertain them and trigger their imaginations — that’s an incredible challenge. This challenge never gets old for me. It just get my adrenaline flowing.”

SLAC began its annual children’s theater show five years ago “to fill the void for professional children’s theater, which fully respects kids’ intellects and honors their creativity,” Fleming explains. “The smiles, the light in their eyes, the thank-yous and the hugs confirm the enlightening power of theater.”

The talented actor who brings the Cat in the Hat to life approaches his character with the same level of serious intent.

“This is my third year doing SLAC’s children’s theater piece, and I’ve never felt the need to approach my process any differently than if I were playing Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” explains Austin Archer. “I’ve got a character, my character has objectives, an arc to find and a story to tell. We craft it out for three weeks in rehearsal, and let it live on stage for a month.”

Archer recognizes that to portray the character who brings “lots of good fun that is funny” requires him to “bring energy and a sense of really enjoying what you’re doing to the show. There isn’t necessarily an established norm for how the character should be played, except for the basics: He loves having fun and he plays hard.”

At the beginning of the story, Archer must stand atop a ball and balance a series of objects to re-create the moment when the whiskered stranger boasts: “With a cup and a cake on the top of my hat, I can hold up two books. I can hold up the fish! And a little toy ship! And some milk on a dish!”

“I’m still working on mastering that,” he says. “I’ve still got time to get it right. You’ll need to come to the theater to find out whether or not I can pull it off!”

If you go

What: “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat”

Where: Salt Lake Acting Company

When: Dec. 6-28

How much: $15 for children, $25 for adults

Tickets: saltlakeactingcompany.org or 801-363-7522

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