What children's show holds a special place in your heart? Kukla, Fran and Ollie? How about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street? Is it a coincidence that all of the aforementioned (and many more) involve people interacting with puppets?
The Great Pretender follows Mr. Felt, the host of a beloved, long-running program for children, as he recovers from the death of his wife, who was also the voice and sparkling personality behind Francis, his primary puppet pal. After a much-needed hiatus, the show is going back into production with Jodi, a quirky young woman who makes her own pants, trying out for the emotionally loaded role. The other puppeteer, perpetual second-banana Carol, takes an instant dislike to Jodi. As they try to adjust to someone new embodying the departed’s alter ego, all sorts of questions arise about who’s trying to move on and who’s having trouble letting go. What does letting go even look like in this context?
Developed in TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival last year, the world premiere of David West Read's play now opens the company's 45th season. It’s easy to see why it was fast-tracked for the main stage. The Great Pretender is a charming, bittersweet tribute to gentle kids’ shows that made you feel like you were at home with the nicest uncle ever. At the same time, it’s not for the tiny tots themselves. The play has some very funny passages that can get a little blue, most of them from Suzanne Grodner as the sardonically inappropriate Carol, who has a hilariously ludicrous screenplay idea and a penchant for dialect humor. And most of all, it’s a touching, sometimes wrenching portrait of grief.
Director Stephen Brackett deftly balances these complementary strains of humor and pathos in his staging. Steve Brady has a perfect mix of pleasant mildness and near-unflappable reserve as TV host Mr. Felt, who teaches kids how to make crafts out of recycled household items. He swaps stories and gentle jokes with impish androgynous kid pal Francis and overly cautious, dimwitted Carol the Pony, both downright adorable hand puppets designed by David Valentine. Michael Storm is amiably harried but always keeps it together as Tom, who’s presumably the director (or possibly the producer), with Grodner’s appealingly obnoxious Carol a perfect foil for him and...well, for everybody.
Sarah Moser is perfectly cast as the starstruck, endearingly awkward Jodi, a sometime children’s theater actress with a talent for voices and an excess of enthusiasm, who’s having a hard time adjusting to the fraught role. Her early attempts at puppetry are especially amusing.
At first it seems as if the play’s going to be about Jodi’s thorny road to finding her place in the cast and learning to make Francis her own without channeling Mr. Felt’s dead wife. But it’s not nearly that simple, and ultimately it’s not Jodi’s story. I’d say it’s Mr. Felt’s story, but that same genial reserve that makes him such a good children’s entertainer also makes him somewhat unknowable. When he says Jodi can call him Roy, she replies, “Oh, thanks, I’m not going to do that.” We may not have grown up with his television character like she did, but we get it. He’s not a Roy. He’s Mr. Felt.
The play is tinged with nostalgia and in some ways is about nostalgia, but it also transcends it, treading difficult emotional ground in a way that feels fresh and authentic. Just like the kids watching Mr. Felt at home, The Great Pretender makes the audience feel we’re in good hands.
The Great Pretender runs through August 3, 2014 at the Lucie Stern Center Theatre in Palo Alto. For tickets and information visit theatreworks.org.
All photos by Kevin Berne.