Let us begin by stating that, yes, talking animals are cute. Next, let's admit that humans
dressed up as animals are somewhat less cute. Finally, let's assert that the older a person gets, the less cute they become, whether they are pretending to be an animal or not.
Call it the Cuteness Quotient, or CQ.
The CQ is what the Children's Theatre Co. is battling in its latest production, Babe the Sheep Pig , a stage adaptation of everyone's favorite story about the limitless possibilities of porcine achievement. Babe the pig is the cutest barnyard animal who ever lived, of course. But what made Babe cute was that he was a real pig (48 different pigs, actually) whose digitally manipulated mouth moved when he talked, just like a real pig's mouth would move if it could speak. There's nothing humans love more than anthropomorphism (except maybe bacon), so the movie was a huge it. Anthropomorphic nirvana had been achieved.
Having apparently scrapped the idea of using real animals in its production (where's the ambition, CTC?), Children's Theatre Co. took the coward's way out and decided to dress actors as animals and have them speak in English accents, even though Babe was Australian. But that's beside the point. When it came to casting Babe, the cutest pig ever, CTC clearly had an artistic choice to make: either train an adorably chunky kid to play the part, or scrap the whole cute thing altogether and give Dean Holt some creative freedom to inhabit the role as he saw fit. He made a wonderfully lovable mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie , they must have been thinking, so how much harder could it be to play a polite pig?
Which is how I'm guessing we arrived at an interpretation of Babe that looks like a cross between Zippy the Pinhead, one of those weird hairless cats, and Britney when she was in rehab. Look for yourself: Holt is bald except for a tuft of hair poking up from the top of his head, and it's obvious to anyone with eyes that the guy is pushing fifty at least. Holt's Babe is creepy—at first, anyway. I wanted to ask the kid next to me if, like me, he was at all freaked out by this rather unsettling artistic choice—but the kid was too busy laughing to answer.
And I'll admit, Holt has a whole arsenal of goofy grins, his funny pig waddle grows on you, and the snorting sounds he makes are universally amusing. But still: It's an old guy in pink overalls!, I wanted to shout. And the dogs are just people wearing floppy ears! And can't you kids see that the rooster's comb is just a rubber dishwashing glove! Your parents paid good money for these tickets; don't you think they should get some awesome special effects, or at least something digital out of the deal! Oh, and by the way, sheep don't dance! They just don't; it's not in their nature. Don't they teach you this stuff in school?!!
I wanted to shout all these things and more, but I held my tongue. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. My protest would have been drowned out by the shrieking din of all those laughing kids. Seriously, I thought one of the kids near me was going to hurl. And when I asked the mother of a six-year-old girl if we should call an ambulance for her child, who was obviously having some sort of seizure, the mom just gave me a mean look and hushed me with her finger.
It's a sad thing to report, but it's true what they say: our children are getting stupider. As far as I could tell, pretty much every kid in the theater had been bamboozled into thinking that Dean Holt is an 18-week-old pig, and Mo Perry is a border collie. You'd think kids raised in the digital age would be savvier—that they would recognize when they are being fooled by a grown man wearing a pink suit with a swirly tail.
But no. They all bought it—hook, line, and sinker. As far as I could tell, every kid in the place left with a delighted smile on their face. On the way out, some even imitated Babe's silly little pig walk. Admittedly, this sort of suggestibility in our young people raises a note of concern about the future of America, but I'll address that issue at a later date, when these stupid kids have stopped laughing long enough to read some serious theater criticism.
Babe continues at the Children's Theatre Co. through Feb. 27, childrenstheatre.org