THEATER | “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” at the Children’s Theatre: It’s 1979—or, rather, 1938—all over again

Print

On Friday night, my mom and I went to see The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins at the Children’s Theatre Company for the second time. The first time was in 1979, when we saw CTC’s first production of the Dr. Seuss story about a boy with a magically multiplying hat. It’s the first play I have any memory of going to see. I was very young then—only four years old—but I certainly remember the litter of orange hats across the stage, and the scary magicians. (I was a sensitive child; Cookie Monster on TV used to frighten me to tears.) 

The occasion wasn’t only special for my mom and me; the show marks the beginning of CTC’s 45th season, and Friday night’s performance concluded with a moving tribute to actor Gerald Drake, who is beginning his 40th (!) season with the company. This season is the occasion for much finger-crossing at the company, which ran a deficit of nearly $4 million in 2009. Some see the company’s 2010-11 season—heavy with brand-name properties like A Christmas Story, Babe the Sheep Pig, and Annie—as a frank concession to the need to sell tickets, and this spring’s adaptation of Disney’s Mulan inspired Pioneer Press critic Dominic Papatola to ask whether CTC has “breached trust with its audience” by selling out to “the Disney machine.”

the 500 hats of bartholomew cubbins, presented at the children’s theatre company through october 30. for tickets ($16.00-$28.50 child, $26.00-$43.50 adult) and information, see childrenstheatre.org.

I don’t know whether Dominic was at Friday night’s performance of Bartholomew Cubbins, but if he was, he would have been horrified at Radio Disney’s unmissable presence—upon ascending the stairs to CTC’s lobby, families walked a red carpet (“Who are you wearing?” a highly-amplified hostess asked the bewildered preschoolers) and posed for photos with cardboard versions of High School Musical cast members. Eventually, though, we all made it into the auditorium and settled in to enjoy one of the company’s signature productions. CTC is the only company in the world permitted to stage Timothy Mason’s musical adaptation of the Seuss story, and in many respects Bartholomew Cubbins has the nationally acclaimed company doing what it does best.

The story is simple: There’s a king (Bradley Greenwald) who lives in a castle above a town, and every male in town must doff his hat for the king. (I wonder whether 21st-century kids will understand why women’s kerchiefs are conspicuously exempt from this requirement.) Young Bartholomew Cubbins (the cherubic Braxton Baker) duly removes his hat when the king arrives—but whoomp! Another one appears out of nowhere to take its place. The king places the boy under arrest, and the remainder of the story tells of the king’s efforts to deal with this infraction of the Law Above All Laws.

It’s a brilliantly lucid scenario that speaks to one of the universal frustrations of childhood: you want to comply with some arbitrary rule set by a grownup on a power trip, but as hard as you try, you cannot. The characters occupy a satisfyingly simple set by Joseph Stanley, and bear cartoonishly oversized props. Director Peter C. Brosius ensures that the performances are well-calibrated to connect with young children across a large room, and the line deliveries come in large type. The production clearly entranced the many children in Friday night’s audience, whose attention only wandered when mine did—during three tepid ballads that bring the story to a halt and represent the low points of an unexceptional score by Hiram Titus.

What most struck me on this viewing was what a departure the play is from most children’s entertainment being created today. Plot conflicts in children’s stories today typically arise from interpersonal misunderstandings, regrettable ethical slip-ups that are duly regretted, or restrictive stereotypes (girls can’t play football) that are triumphantly overcome. Dr. Seuss, though, was born in 1904 and published Bartholomew Cubbins in 1938; the story makes assumptions about divine and parental authority that most mainstream children’s entertainment today would shrink far away from.

The necessity for ironclad royal authority, and citizens’ deference to that authority, drives the whole plot—even though the king himself seems to have second thoughts about it, the law that hats must be removed is never refuted, and the king actually attempts to put a young boy to death rather than have the hat-doffing law broken. (The attempt doesn’t work, because it conflicts with yet another divine law: that individuals cannot be executed while wearing hats.) The villain of the play is not the law, but the king’s insubordinate nephew (Brandon Brooks), and when the king finally assumes his proper authority and punishes the brat, it’s the climactic triumph of the play. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, then, is in the odd position of defending—indeed, celebrating—a Medieval, patriarchal God-adult-child hierarchy even as the last bastion of that model in Western culture is meeting a justifiably furious reception in a country where the nominal monarchy remains for little purpose other than to provide tabloid fodder.

Cultural analysis aside, Bartholomew Cubbins is a heavy show. Over the course of the play Bartholomew is surrounded by dark-robed magicians carrying yowling cats; shot at by a yeoman (Drake) with a huge bow and very real arrows; taken up to a parapet to be pushed to his death (it doesn’t actually happen, but the king is clearly considering it very seriously); and dispatched to a dungeon to request that his own head be chopped off by a masked executioner (Peter Simonson) who sings a tender ballad—then goes right ahead and raises a giant axe over the boy’s willingly offered neck. And why does the play end happily? Because the mysterious magic arbitrarily produces a few jewel-laden hats and then shuts off, finally leaving Bartholomew lawfully hatless and distracting the king with riches—some of which he shares with the boy, who subsequently uses them to buy off his angry mother. I’m generally a libertarian when it comes to children’s entertainment, but I do wonder whether this is a story that particularly needs to be retold.

Well, here it is, and it must be said that the show’s texture, rhythm, and performances are often delightful. My mom loved it, and she thought the play’s message about the need to be happy with your own lot in life was a positive one. I’m not so sure. Would I bring my own four-year-old (if I had one) to The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins? Much as I might have liked the answer to be otherwise…no, I would not.