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Rabbit is a parcel of contradictions, a creature of strict habits yet a card-carrying alarmist. As we see over and over in Sandra Fenichel Asher’s Too Many Frogs, now at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, days at Rabbit’s cottage are almost exactly the same. Upon waking, he tidies and dusts. Then comes dinnertime, for which he invariably chooses a carrot from his garden, rejecting his cabbage and spinach options. Once he busses his dish and utensils, Rabbit makes sure his table and stool are back in place. Already time for bed! So Rabbit brings out his library from the back room and chooses a storybook to read. After one last tidying and dusting, he’s off to bed. Though this cycle of events repeats like clockwork, they seem to sneak up on Rabbit. Having tidied and dusted, he will glance at his watch and shriek in horror. Dinnertime already! You might say Rabbit is a little bit jumpy.
Behold the absurdity of adults. Each time Rabbit is shocked by the exact same phenomenon that occurred the day before, he becomes more and more ridiculous. Yet behold the instinctual acuity of the preschoolers – they laugh harder and harder with each repetition. Stephen Seay beautifully understands that Rabbit’s stubborn regimentation must be rigidly observed to bring out the hilarity of his eruptions. He has others besides those sparked by his wristwatch, most notably how he ignores his prim utensils and voraciously gobbles up his carrot – with loud, resounding gusto. Seay and director Mark Sutton milk this shtick a bit, for when Rabbit gobbles his carrot, it’s as if he were plowing through rows of kernels eating corn-on-the-cob. The suddenness of it, with Seay roaring like a jackhammer, gets the kids the first time. But then there’s a decorous spot of rest and silence before Rabbit mightily gobbles again, and the delight holds for anklebiters through the third jackhammering gobble.
Presumably too subtle for the smallest fry to grasp is that, for Rabbit, one frog is really too many through most of this 52-minute affair. Froggie comes knocking at Rabbit’s front door soon after he has settled in to read the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Repetition within repetition! Froggie is back the following night when Rabbit reads “The Elves and the Shoemaker” and again for “The Ugly Duckling.” I get the idea that Asher would have ditched the “Duckling” in a heartbeat if she could have found a story as repetitious as the other two. Tanya McClellan was spontaneous and irrepressible enough as Froggie for us to recognize that she is the child in this parable, clinching that recognition when she sits down at Rabbit’s feet to listen to him read – with just enough disruption to remind us that she’s there. Notwithstanding her energy and enthusiasm, Froggie is marvelously well behaved, saving her exclamatory “ribbets” for the outdoors after storytime is done and she has left Rabbit’s cottage.
When the readings begin, the drapes across Froggie’s parlor window part like stage curtains, and the outside world of Tim Parati’s quaint set design becomes a puppet theater. After a brief appearance at the top of the show, this is where Scott Miller and Leslie Ann Giles, the remaining members of CT’s touring Tarradiddle Players, remain cooped up, manipulating the puppets as they act out the stories. More repetition here, for Giles and Miller will occasionally say almost the same exact words that Rabbit has just read – and the blithe and oblivious McClellan might have the innocent audacity to repeat them yet again. Seay’s forbearance during all this was in the same mold of Johnny Carson’s mystic Swami when he was echoed by Ed McMahon. Some welcomed variety crops up in the puppet creations of Andrea Everman. In between the conventional rag concoctions for Goldilocks, the bears, and the waterfowl, Everman constructs the elves, the shoemaker, and his spouse with silhouetted cutouts.
One last run-through of Rabbit’s routine, deliciously delivered at fast-forward speed, precedes the inevitable catastrophe. It’s worth waiting for, as Miller and Giles, thanks to the winsome costume wizardry of Paula Garofalo, are too many frogs all by themselves when Froggie invites them to tag along for storytime. Of course, Rabbit hasn’t been told, so this final – and for once, genuine – surprise causes our good host to totally freak out. It’s here that Asher’s parable of home life becomes most meaningful. For after Rabbit expels the entire colony and settles in for a new story, he finds that something is missing. It’s not his customary snack or his plush pillows. It’s Froggie. So it has always been with those inexplicable creatures known as parents. They may rage at children for unfathomable reasons, but underneath the strained tolerance and bluster, they actually like having their brood around. In the eyes of children, the fact that we’re creatures of habit may be our saving grace.
Too Many Frogs continues through Sunday, March 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.