Editorial Disclosure: Jones Day Elementary is the third-largest shareholder of The New York Times Company.
The house lights dim. The curtain opens on a darkened set. A voice booms overhead on the PA system reminding the audience to turn off their phones and that the gymnasium has recently tested positive for asbestos. Everyone is encouraged to breathe discriminately for the duration of the performance.
The show’s heavy Spanish influence, with its distinctive adobe architectural set pieces, stands in stark relief to the sheer whiteness of the entire cast. But it’s the minimalist, bleak background—Pamplona drawn hastily on a large canvas in Magic Marker hung across the wall behind a basketball hoop—that gives it a decidedly unintentional Bergmanesque flavor.
Soren Fleischman, whose mother combed his hair thoroughly for the role, appears on stage to a smattering of thunderous applause. His star power is obvious, and he’s instantly recognizable as the handsome, titular character, Don Gato, an oversexed and debauched feline. His portrayal of sexual obsession and lustful yearning is so convincing, a social worker from CPS has come to watch three consecutive performances.
It’s not the oversized, furry onesie that gives Fleischman away as a captivating lead but his fluent application of the Jacques Lecoq movement technique as he preens and mime-licks his own behind in that comical way we’ve all seen cats do. Suddenly, a diegetic scratching sound is heard. Don abruptly stops licking himself and looks up from his nethers out at the crowd. His attention has moved to something on the wall, and we the audience are left thinking about cat anuses. Feline cleanliness juxtaposed against our filthy human minds is lost on almost everyone. Act I has started.
With a flourish of the wrist and mild coughing from an allergy to mohair, Emmy Cavendish, age six, effortlessly graces the stage embodying Lady Cat, a fully-realized three-dimensional character who has length, width, and height. She’s a great foil to Don, at once prone to kidney disease and comical misunderstandings. She’s also in heat. How Cavendish conveys all of these attributes simultaneously merely by using plain exposition, such as “I am in heat today and very sick,” is a testament to her deft handling of the character. (In a subsequent scene, she’s unrecognizable playing a deciduous tree, such is the astonishing breadth of this actress’s range.)
The plot of this royalty-free play is deceptively simple and was written by no one. Don Gato, with his salacious history of womanizing, meets the love of his life, a tin of anchovies that sings “Sorrento Moon” whenever the lid is peeled back. He also falls for Lady Cat and asks for her hand in marriage after the anchovies turn him down in three-part harmony. She’s reluctant to accept on account of his less-than-sterling reputation and says she’ll need time to mull it over. A week later, Don receives a handwritten letter of rejection, and to make matters worse, it begins “To Whom It May Concern.”
In grief and shock, a dizzy Don Gato drops the letter and falls from the roof upon which he’s perched, plummeting 15 stories to the ground below. Fleischman’s choice to play the untimely death for laughs, yelling “Wowie zowie!” every time he hits a gutter on the long way down, leavens an otherwise gruesome moment. A Greek chorus pops up out of left field to provide exposition for the scene, chanting in an inexplicable Spanish accent the name of each bone as it breaks. “The tibia… the fibula… now the hyoid. Where is the hyoid? We don’t know. But Señor Don Gato is dead!”
A doctor runs over to check Don’s pulse but can’t find one and immediately throws in the towel, declaring him “either dead or unconscious,” two states that are similar in terms of how they feel. A funeral procession forms, and Lady Cat, who had mailed a letter meant for the cable company to Don by mistake, watches in disbelief from her bedroom window as her fiancé’s body is paraded down Main Street. When Don Gato magically comes back to life in the cemetery because somebody opens a can of “Ex-Machina” brand tuna, it’s not so much Cavendish’s facial expression as it is her hands on each cheek that truly conveys her surprise.
Fleischbaum’s sonorous, puberty-free voice combined with Cavendish’s Adderall-fueled tantrums during intermission creates a darkly comic atmosphere that will surely win both first-graders residencies at Las Vegas casinos. But the true barometer of the musical’s success will be measured by how long the characters endure in the audience’s minds. “If they can make it to the parking lot, that’s a big win,” says Tony Berman, the drama teacher. Either way, this production shows few signs of slowing down. Don Gato plays for another week before asbestos abatement is slated to begin.
Editor’s Note: The Times theatre critic Adrienne Foley was subsequently arrested for attending this production as she has no children at the school. Since the publication of this review, Jones Day was also compelled to divulge that it shares classroom space with a multinational drug distribution firm in an effort to explain why the school has so many vice principals.