The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus – Childsplay; Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

For its 2018/19 season opener, Childsplay chose a favorite, Charlotte’s Web. As a followup, the company has gone with something completely different. It’s an Arizona premiere. In fact, it’s a world premiere, a one-woman show by Eric Coble featuring Kate Haas who tells the tale of The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus. And she does. The girl really does swallow a cactus. But there’s a lot that happens before that cactus eating moment arrives and it’s Haas whose on hand to tell everyone about it.

The setting is a desert area junkyard, courtesy of scenic designer Jeff Thompson. It’s a place full of bits and bobs; a motley collection of abandoned artifacts, some rusty, some not. On their own, they amount to nothing at all, but with a little imagination and lots of enthusiasm, when carefully assembled and slotted together, they can resemble anything you want. In the case of the play, the pieces can become the front of a vehicle, or a monument, a pair of stilts, and best of all, a fortress castle tree house in which the soon-to-be-introduced gang of five can play.

Kate is credited as playing Dust Cloud. At least, that’s her nickname. Like many of the play’s reveals, the real name will come later. But that’s not important. The important thing is, Dust Cloud has a tale of the desert to tell and she’s thrilled to see that everyone has turned up to hear it. Down the road, she’ll eventually need our help, but it comes with an explanation. “You’ve got to understand what you’re getting into,” she tells us, and the story begins.

Told with all the ebullience of a wide-eyed fifth grader who has so much to say she can’t wait to blurt it out, Dust Cloud proceeds with the story of eight-year-old Sheila, a young girl so bright “… You can get a suntan from just standing in front of her.”

As Haas proceeds with the story, she’s constantly on the move, picking up and choosing pieces of left-overs laying around that might help with the telling of the tale. And she builds. She’s a storytelling junkyard Caractacus Potts. And as she builds she introduces us to the rest of the gang who’ll be a part of Sheila’s oncoming desert adventure, one that promises to include “… Jaw dropping excitement of terror and wonder,” adding, “It’s true. I know. I because I was there. Well, sorta.”

First, there was Dennis, a boy who was as strong as three third-graders put together. Then there was Leon, the possessor of the cleverest hands and fingers you’ll ever meet. And finally, the twins. “They must have had names, but no one knew what it was,” Dust Cloud explains, though they’re referred to as Eager and Shy.

It’s summer and there’s no school. In the case of the five, there’s also no summer camp, and no parents around to tell them what to do. They’re left alone with just their imaginations. Nearby is that disheveled area that Sheila’s mom observed was full of nothing but useless junk. But Sheila saw something else. She saw the makings of a city that needed to be built. So with the help of Dennis, Leon and the twins, they build. And the best part of the day was the desert sunset period when the purple sky turned to black. “And that’s the moment when everything changed!” Dust Cloud announces.

From there, the story takes an unexpected, surreal turn, and that’s where the real theme of writer Coble’s play begins. A coyote turns up. But not on all fours, sniffing around. This one drives a truck. And when the children hide among the artifacts they’ve built, they see that the coyote can walk on two legs, plus it wears cowboy boots and even sunglasses, “At night!” Dust Cloud declares, adding, “The twins may or may not have pee’d at this point.”

What follows is a tale of what’s required when humans encroach on land populated by animals, and what can happen when animals emerge and roam on newly built land populated by humans. There’s only one answer; we need to work together. And it’s Sheila and her crew with several surprises along the way that show us how it can be done.

Eric Coble’s script is a good one and succeeds well in creating that sense of wide-eyed playfulness and imagination. It’s clear his memories of what it’s like to be a child remain. But the play’s overall theme doesn’t come across as effectively as you might hope. The meaning should be obvious to an adult, but a child might not grasp it’s full implications, even though the five children within the story spell it out, followed by a summary from its narrator. Mom and dad may need to go over why it is that the coyote in the cowboy boots and the sunglasses has an issue with the humans.

The play is presented in collaboration with Metro Theater Company in Saint Louis as a Rolling World Premiere. Later next year, the Missouri based company will present its own production, but while the play and its presentation will be essentially the same, there’s an advantage the valley has that Saint Louis does not: Kate Haas. The play is an entrancing 60 minutes brought alive under director Debra K. Stevens’ guidance with a performance from Kate that is constantly full of surprises. She moves and talks with such an uninterrupted, boundless energy it’s like watching an actor having an hour-long workout. You’re breathless just watching her. And with a change of voice and an adjustment of stance, she makes the characters of the five children so vivid that at the final fade out you half expect to have Sheila, Dennis, Leon, and the twins take a bow along with Kate.

If you remember to do this, take a short break and glance around you. There’s nothing so satisfying as seeing a theatre full of children whose faces show how mesmerized they are as they hang on to every word Dust Cloud tells them. And they’re concerned. When our narrator climbed some shaky looking rungs on a ladder, a young girl seated nearby whispered into her father’s ear, “I don’t think she’s safe up there.”

And as for that swallowing of a cactus, it happens. She really eats a cactus. But during the ten minute Q&A with the cast that always follows a Childsplay production, raise your hand and ask Kate how it’s done. Like Penn & Teller who’ve made a career of revealing their tricks, Kate will be only too happy to pull the curtain back and reveal a moment of theatre magic. It’s quite impressive.

The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus continues at Herberger Theater Center until November 18

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Trumble

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