‘CATS TALK BACK’ AT RED GARN THEATER GIVES THE AUDIENCE WHAT THEY WANT

The Red Barn Theater opens its 2022 season with a play that, in many ways, is perfectly in tune with the times. “Cats Talk Back” is just the right amount of absurdity to compliment the first month of the new year. As usual, director Joy Hawkins has a keen sense of what audiences want to see at all times.

The current theater climate across the country seems cautious. Perhaps cautiously optimistic, but cautious nonetheless. On the other side of the fourth wall, viewers approach the medium with similar trepidation. It then seems a solid choice to curate lighter, accessible fare – works that will make audiences laugh and hopefully remember what they missed most in the performing arts. Red Barn Theater’s production of “Cats Talk Back” accomplishes just that. With a cast featuring five of Key West’s favorite comedic actors – Michael Mulligan, Marjorie Paul Shook, Nicole Nurenburg, Rhett Kalman and Jeff Johnson – the play works like a fake reality. And if a skewed version of reality isn’t so perfect now, well, what is?

“Cats Talk Back” opens with Johnson welcoming the audience for a live chat with former “Cats” cast members. For those who managed to escape its clutches, “Cats” opened in 1982 and ran for 18 years and nearly 8,000 performances. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show featured highly emotional, elaborately costumed felines dancing through a surreal (and arguably thin) plot based on a children’s poetry book by TS Eliot. There were also leggings. Yes really. Shortly after his debut, Lloyd Webber was dubbed the “King of Broadway Show”. Whether that should be interpreted as a compliment or an insult is up to the beholder. Either way, “Cats” is almost universally considered the epitome of his oversaturated work.

Fast forward 40 years to a Key West yard, where Johnson just staged his supposed interview subjects. As the evening’s emcee, Johnson conveys a perfectly authentic version of himself – earnest, enthusiastic, someone who can hold a stage and carry on a conversation. The “cast members” who occupy the stools to his right embody four micro-visions of a life spent in the theatre. Mulligan brings charisma to Hector, a pompous mainstay of Old Broadway, while Kalman imbues his character, Stephen, with the perfect edginess with which to overanalyze his “Cats” career. Nurenburg gives a playful steering wheel to Bonnie, an ingenue who desperately wants to feel included. It’s Shook, however, who draws the deepest laughs with her portrayal of Monique, a wiser-than-expected glam madam who spent 18 years in her role. Each actor brings their own brand of fun, but the best times come when our cats team up. At the risk of spoiling a sublime surprise, it’s worth noting that the play’s beautifully absurd climax comes in the form of a song – an unsettling and hilarious play of a number that would have been cut from the original songbook.

“Cats Talk Back” is a mock drama that purports to “interview” former Broadway “Cats” cast members. CONTRIBUTED

Writer Bess Wohl penned the play when she was a student at the Yale School of Drama. Each character was written with a specific classmate in mind. The sum of these characters was a “love letter to the theater, to the actors, and to the community that we are building together,” says Wohl. “We promoted the play as if it were entirely real, and many non-Yale people who came to see the show thought the actors were actually the real Cats performers. It all felt like a giant trick, a joyous farce, which I now realize is how I think of most theaters, regardless of form. Wohl’s lovable farce feels at home in Key West, balancing comedy with a nod to the community ties of theater making and viewing.

Adding to the sensibility of the moment, “Cats Talk Back” is staged outdoors, under a canopy of lights in the beautifully improvised courtyard of the Red Barn Theatre. Comedy, community, fresh air – 2022 is off to a good start at the Red Barn.

“Cats Talk Back” shows at 8 p.m. Jan. 18-22, Jan. 25-29 at the Red Barn Theater, 319 Duval St. (back). Tickets are available at redbarntheatre.com and at 305-296-9911.

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