Clever mock-drama offers 'the right amount of absurd'

The Red Barn Theatre opens its 2022 season with a play that, in many ways, perfectly fits the tone of the moment. “Cats Talk Back” is just the right amount of absurd 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 any given moment. 

The current climate of theater around the country feels cautious. Perhaps cautiously optimistic, but cautious nonetheless. On the other side of the fourth wall, theatergoers are approaching the medium with similar trepidation. It seems then a solid choice to curate lighter, accessible fare — works that will have the audience laughing and, hopefully, remembering what they missed most about live arts. The Red Barn Theatre’s production of “Cats Talk Back” accomplishes exactly 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 functions as mock reality. And if a slanted version of reality isn’t just so perfectly now, well then, what is?

“Cats Talk Back” opens with Johnson welcoming the audience to a live conversation with former “Cats” cast members. For those who’ve somehow managed to escape its claws, “Cats” opened in 1982 and ran for 18 years and nearly 8,000 performances. The Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacle featured highly emotive, elaborately costumed felines dancing their way through a surreal (and arguably thin) plot based on a book of children’s poetry by T.S. Eliot. Also, there were leg warmers. Yes, really. Shortly after its debut, Lloyd Webber was dubbed the “King of Broadway Spectacle.” Whether that should be construed as a compliment or an insult lies in the eyes of the theatergoer. Regardless, “Cats” is almost universally regarded as the epitome of his oversaturated oeuvre.

Fast forward 40 years to a courtyard in Key West, where Johnson has just brought his supposed interview subjects to the stage. As the emcee of the evening, Johnson conveys a perfectly genuine version of himself — earnest, enthusiastic, someone who can hold a stage and lead a conversation. The “cast members” who occupy the stools to his right embody four micro-visions of a life spent in theater. Mulligan brings charisma to Hector, a pompous stalwart of Old Broadway, while Kalman imbues his character, Stephen, with a perfect twitchiness with which to overanalyze his “Cats” career. Nurenburg gives a playful flounce to Bonnie, an ingenue who desperately wants to feel included. It’s Shook, though, who draws out the deepest laughs with her depiction of Monique, a wiser-than-one-would-expect glam madame who spent 18 years in her role. Each actor brings their own brand of funny, but the best moments come when our cats team up. At the risk of ruining a sublime surprise, it’s worth noting that the beautifully absurd pinnacle of the play comes in the form of a song — a disturbing and hilariously violent romp of a number that was supposedly cut from the original songbook. 

‘Cats Talk Back’ is a mock-drama that purports to ‘interview’ former members of the cast of Broadway’s long-running “Cats.’ CONTRIBUTED

Writer Bess Wohl wrote the play when she was a student at Yale School of Drama. Each character was written with a specific classmate in mind. The sum of these characters was a “love letter to theater, actors and the community we build together,” says Wohl. “We promoted the play as if it was entirely real, and many non-Yale people who came to see the show thought the actors in it were actually the real performers from Cats. It all felt like a giant trick, a joyful prank, which I now realize is how I think about most theatre, no matter the form.” Wohl’s lovable prank feels right at home in Key West, balancing comedy with a nod to the communal bonds of creating and watching theater. 

Adding to the sensibility of the moment, “Cats Talk Back” is staged outdoors, under a canopy of lights in Red Barn Theatre’s beautifully improvised courtyard. 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, 25-29 at at Red Barn Theatre, 319 Duval St. (rear). Tickets are available at redbarntheatre.com and 305-296-9911.

Erin gets to flex her creative muscle as Artistic Director of the Studios of Key West but has also completed a graduate degree at Harvard, served as a National Park Service Search and Rescue volunteer, visited all 50 states, rescued a 300lb sea turtle, nabbed the title of Key West Ms. Gay Pride, and gotten involved with Special Olympics. She says yes to pretty much everything. Luckily her wife, daughter and crazed terrier put up with this.